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Proud Chechens Ready for Russia's Next Move

By Bill GasperiniSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor. Wendy Sloane in Moscow contributed to this report. / January 6, 1995


THE fierce Muslim fighters of Russia's Chechnya republic only become more confident the tougher things get.

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Their temporary victory over the Russian Army this week in their capital, Grozny, has steeled them for more fighting, even as President Boris Yeltsin struggles with rising opposition to the war (How US reacts, Page 3).

Russian forces continued to fire tank and artillery rounds from Grozny's outlying districts yesterday. Occasionally the shells strike the nine-story Presidential Palace - the key objective of the failed Russian offensive New Year's weekend. The building is pockmarked with bullet and shell holes, and debris is scattered throughout the interior, with hundreds of fighters essentially camping in the building.

Outside on Freedom Square and adjacent streets, the destruction is far worse. The blackened hulks of Russian tanks are stopped in their tracks, the bodies of dead crew members lying beside them. Near the train station and in northern suburbs, there are scores more vehicles and hundreds of bodies, evidence both of a failed Russian military strategy and the strength of Chechen resistance.

Chechen fighters are intensely proud of the battle, knowing that using mostly hand-held weapons, they fended off a concerted attack by a seemingly invincible army.

``We showed them we intend to defend ourselves whatever it takes,'' said Shamil Besiav, the top Chechen military commander near the palace. He carried a bag full of ID cards and badges of Russian prisoners.

Other fighters reaffirmed they truly mean it when they shout in Russian, svoboda ili smert! (freedom or death!) before going into battle. Most of the fighters sport camouflage fatigues, black ski caps, and hunting vests. Many have green ribbons with Koranic inscriptions wrapped around their heads.

Behind the palace sat several captured Russian tanks, now fitted out with the green-and-red-striped Chechen flag. And in the darkened basement of a nearby building sat many of those tanks' crew members - those who were not incinerated or shot trying to escape their vehicles.

Mostly teenage conscripts, the 45 prisoners leaned against concrete walls in two rooms illuminated only by a few candles.

``This war shouldn't be happening,'' said one prisoner, who gave his name as Vladimir, staring glumly at the floor.

Yet back above ground, his uncaptured colleages clearly have not given up the fight. Artillery shells often slam into buildings and houses near the palace, as explosions sound in the distance. Fighters and a few civilians scurry for cover when crossing nearby intersections, taking care to avoid downed power and tram car lines, wrecked autos, and piles of rubble. Occasionally bodies of dead Chechen fighters arrive, carried on stretchers and covered with a carpet.

Looking for excuses

The initial failure to capture the city is clearly causing much hand-wringing back in Moscow. Russian leaders appear to be groping for explanations, saying that foreign mercenaries from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran are involved in the Chechen fighting.

When asked about this, Chechen fighters scoff at the suggestion, saying they are able to carry on their own fight, although some do admit having received training in Afghanistan.

Russia said yesterday it was willing to brief envoys from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about its policy in Chechnya, according to German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel.

Earlier, presidential spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov hinted that President Yeltsin might seek to mollify critics of his policy in the breakaway republic. He told the Russian Independent Television network Wednesday that the president was unnerved by the public's reaction to his use of force in Chechnya, particularly as expressed in the mass media.