Chechen Linkup Outdoes the 'Net'
Secret ham radios keep guerrillas tuned in to base
NOVOSELSKOYE, RUSSIA — AS Russian helicopter gunships continued to rocket Chechen rebels holed up with their hostages from the village of Pervomaiskoye for a second day yesterday, Chechens mistrustful of official Russian status reports were relying on their own sources - a secret network of ham radios that links the rebel fighters.
In a barely furnished whitewashed room in the hills five miles across the field from Pervomaiskoye, operator ''73'' gently twiddled a dial, fine-tuning his ancient receiver to listen in on a broadcast from Salman Raduyev, the leader of the besieged guerrillas.
Outgunned on the ground and in the Russian media, Chechens have relied on their makeshift radio links since Russia sent 40,000 troops to quash rebels in the region 13 months ago. The links have helped maintain the Chechens' guerrilla force even in the face of the current Russian onslaught.
The Russian Interior Ministry said 60 rebels and four Russian servicemen were killed since fighting started Jan. 15, after Chechens defied a Russian deadline to release hostages they captured Jan. 9. Russian troops have brought out 24 people from the village, said the Federal Security Service. Yet the Itar-Tass news agency also reported yesterday that Chechen rebels had seized 30 other hostages in the Chechen capital of Grozny.
Resisting a massive air and artillery assault by Russian forces, Mr. Raduyev called on the radio for help from fellow fighters across the border in Chechnya, and claimed he had not harmed any of his hostages. Back across the airwaves came orders from the Chechen leadership for gunmen to attack the Russians from the rear.
''They are storming again from all sides,'' came a Chechen command near midnight Jan. 15, through the squeals and whistles from a distorted signal. ''All those waiting until evening should attack now, full scale.''
Whether the orders were carried out was unclear. But the next morning another branch of the clandestine Chechen network was abuzz with fresh news: Chechen television came on the air with reports that Raduyev was negotiating again with Russian officials. ''This is how people everywhere in Chechnya and Dagestan find out what is going on,'' said a quiet, silver-haired man, who is an auto mechanic in ordinary life. ''Every village has a radio of some sort.''
Operator 73 chose his code name to mark the year he was demobilized from the Russian Army, where he had worked as a radio operator. He has been a ham-radio operator ever since, though his hobby is illegal. ''They used to give licenses, but they stopped when the war began. They call us radio hooligans.''
Legal or not, locals say almost every village in the breakaway republic and many in neighboring Dagestan have radio posts.
With handles like ''Sniper,'' ''Champion,'' and ''Director,'' they keep Chechen fighters and civilians informed of events in a region where travel is difficult and often dangerous, and where Russian newspapers, radio, and television are not believed. During intense fighting, the Chechen leader, Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, and his chief of staff use the radio to issue orders to their field commanders.
The order to attack the Russian rear on the night of Jan. 15 seemed designed to open a corridor into Chechen territory through which Raduyev and his 200 fighters might escape. Early the next morning, however, at least one unit reported it was unable to move because an open field was illuminated by Russian flares.
Chechen rebel leaders also use the network to broadcast the status of their battles to their listeners. Raduyev, for example, is in contact with Dudayev by VHF radio, through an operator known as ''Belomor,'' according to 73. Belomor then transmits on the medium-wave open network what Dudayev wants his people to know of Raduyev's report.
But the ham network serves a civilian function too, its users say, allowing Chechens to keep in touch with family and friends. Hussein Rasulidze, for example, a Chechen living in Dagestan, heard about his uncle's death over the network.
The radio link also allows its users simply to express themselves at moments of tension. On the night of Jan. 15, as the ground shook here from bomb explosions in Pervomaiskoye, Chechen men sat around the radio and nodded in agreement as they listened to Champion rage against the Russians. ''Is this a fair fight?'' he asked. ''There are 10 times as many of them out there and they have artillery and airplanes. How can they call themselves honest warriors? They are cowards.''
Helpless themselves, Chechens can at least take comfort in their own secret network. ''This is the straightest communication you can get,'' said Mr. Rasulidze. ''This is not the crafty stuff that journalists write.''