Encircled by Russians, Chechens Defy Odds Despite Their Isolation

BY 8 o'clock yesterday morning the main arms market in downtown Grozny had almost been picked clean.

The most valuable items, such as grenade launchers and antitank weapons, were long gone. Latecomers had to settle for Kalashnikov rifles, pistols, and knives.

Unshaven young Chechens, many wearing bulletproof vests over fatigues stuffed with hand grenades, chattered conspiratorially as they exchanged wads of rubles and dollars for shiny objects wrapped in newspaper.

Their transactions were interrupted only by the thump of artillery fire and the blasts of bombs hitting their targets outside the capital, as Russian troops, sent into the breakaway republic of Chechnya on Sunday, continued their advance.

``I'm buying `medicine' for the Russian soldiers,'' says Arti Kayinov, a young man in a brown astrakhan hat who was carrying several assault rifles. He held up a box of bullets and grinned maliciously. ``Let their mommies know what kind of medicine we're buying them.''

A Chechen isn't a Chechen without a gun, the old proverb goes, and never in the breakaway republic's recent history has that been truer than now, with the Russian Army blockading the capital and battles breaking out across this mountainous land.

The spirit of defiance is in the air. ``Chechens, like Jews, have been hunted all their lives,'' says Khanvad Tsurayev, as he picks over weapons at the arms bazaar yesterday. ``It is in the Chechen blood to defend ourselves.

``When a cat chases a mouse and tries to eat it, even a mouse will try to fight back,'' he adds.

Separatist Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev later urged his people to resist the Russian invaders.

``I call on the population to wage war with Russia until it leaves the territory of Chechnya,'' the former Soviet general said, in a dramatic appeal shown on local television. ``We have no other choice.''

RUSSIAN troops, determined to wrest control of Chechnya from General Dudayev and quash the independence he declared unilaterally three years ago, were poised outside Grozny yesterday.

Whether they would lay siege to the city or storm it remained to be seen. But as the Russian noose around Grozny tightened, the mood here was grim.

The marketplace was almost deserted, a few stalls offering little but bread, old oranges, and a paltry selection of candy bars. Under the overcast sky few people ventured out, and the cold streets were quiet save the occasional clattering tram.

At the city's main military hospital, which is without heat or hot water, staff did what they could to prepare for an influx of patients. Already they were caring for some of the casualties brought in from recent fighting in the surrounding hills.

``The Russians don't want peace, they just want to kill all Chechens,'' wailed Asma Astemirov yesterday, as she sat by her husband, a bus driver who was wounded in a Russian attack on the village of Pervomaiskaya.

``I have four children and no job,'' she said. ``What am I going to do?''

Peace talks collapsed yesterday, according to the Russian government Itar-Tass news agency, when Chechen negotiators walked out. They had insisted their republic's independence not be challenged, while the Russian team had demanded that any solution to the conflict be based on the Russian Constitution, implying acceptance that Chechnya is part of Russia.

But the Chechens - renowned for their boasting - are doing all they can to convince the Russians, and the world, that they will not give up.

Armed primitively with the crudest of weapons, the Chechens shot down one Russian helicopter near the village of Novo-Shurvoi, about 35 kilometers (18 miles) west of Grozny yesterday, killing two crewmen.

Such military successes have humiliated and angered the Russian Army, which expected the Chechens to beat a hasty retreat once they realized the superiority of Russian military hardware.

Instead, Chechen fighters have begun guerrilla-style operations, as Dudayev had warned.

``This is the centuries-old tactic of mountain people. Strike and withdraw, strike and withdraw,'' he told Russia's state-owned TV on Tuesday night. ``Exhaust them until they die of fear and horror.

``The earth must burn under their feet,'' Dudayev declared. ``It is a war until death.''

In Grozny, it seems only the old and infirm would dare disagree with him, even if the odds look stacked in favor of the Russians.

``Every Chechen has a weapon, if not physically, then spiritually,'' says Hussein Doskeyev, recovering in a hospital bed from shrapnel wounds he sustained during a Russian missile attack on his collective farm near the village of Dolinsk.

``Now we are using our spirit to defend ourselves,'' he says. ``If we had weapons like the Russians, they wouldn't stand a chance.''

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