123199 [Reuters] Russians Blast Deeper Into Grozny
- Russians Blast Deeper Into Grozny
By Andrei Shukshin
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said its troops blasted deeper
into the Chechen capital Grozny on Friday, smashing rebel
defenses, as the reins of power in Moscow passed from
President Boris Yeltsin to his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Putin's role as engineer of the Chechnya campaign has
raised his popularity and Yeltsin's departure was likely to boost his chances in a
March presidential election. His generals have pledged to wrap up the Chechnya
campaign within three months.
Interfax news agency reported from Russia's regional military base in Mozdok, just
outside Chechnya, that Russian troops backed by a pro-Moscow militia had broken
the outer ring of rebel defenses in the shattered city.
It said Russian forces were pushing into the center from three directions with the
aim of separating Grozny into several zones to be combed later by police units.
Officers told Interfax troops had secured control over two city districts,
Staropromyslovsky and a part of Sunzhensky. Rebel fighters were reduced to small
groups moving about Grozny and taking temporary shelter in devastated buildings.
They said 2,500 rebels remained in a maze of Soviet-era concrete bunkers and
apartment blocks, protected by remote-controlled mines and artillery shells planted
under tanks of poisonous chemicals.
Interfax quoted the officers as saying a further week was required before Grozny
could be taken.
The rebel web site kavkaz.org said the Chechens in Grozny had counter-attacked,
inflicting heavy casualties.
Stranded Civilians Live In A Ghost Town
As many as 40,000 civilians are believed to be stranded in Grozny, living mostly in
basements with little food or heat.
Footage of the city shot on Thursday and obtained by Reuters showed a ghost
town with barren streets strewn with rubble. Charred shells of houses shuddered
with every distant cannonade.
Two men, squinting after hours of confinement in a dark cellar, were chopping
wood for a stove to prepare whatever food could be found for a dozen women and
children in their care.
Valentina Baisongurova, in her 50s, said she had little choice but to remain in the
dank cellar where she and her children had been holed up for weeks.
``We have nowhere to go. My daughter told me: 'If we are to die, we are better
off dying at home,''' she said.
In a makeshift cellar hospital, Klavdiya Gemayeva, an elderly woman with deep
rings under her eyes, rose from what passed for a bed after treatment for a gash
on her forehead.
``They bomb, they strike wherever they want. They kill whoever remains here,''
she said in a weeping, halting voice.
West Hopes For End To War
Western leaders were swift to praise Yeltsin's achievements as president. Some
urged Putin to seize the moment and end Russia's military campaign in Chechnya.
French President Jacques Chirac appealed to Putin to ``fight for a return to
Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema called for a peaceful solution to the conflict
``which respects human rights and ends the suffering of the civilian population.''
With control all but established over Chechnya's lowlands, Russian troops have
turned to the more daunting task of flushing out the rebels from mountain bases
Itar-Tass news agency said rebels had launched attacks to dislodge Russian
paratroops from a hill overlooking a road at the bottom of the Argun gorge which
links Chechnya to ex-Soviet Georgia. The rebels had used the road as a supply
Interfax said fighting was also raging in Vedeno region, southeast of Grozny, where
troops were shelling rebels holed up in concrete bunkers. Vedeno is the site of a
big rebel base.
Russia launched the Chechnya campaign in response to incursions by Muslim
militants into a neighboring region. Moscow also accuses the rebels of staging
bomb explosions in Russian cities, an allegation denied by the Chechens.