Chechens Sharpen Knives Against Russian Tanks

Some of Moscow's troops drain own fuel tanks to stay out of war

IN any other town about to be invaded by the Russian Army, local people would be jamming buses and commandeering vehicles in a panic to leave.

But in Samashkin, a desolate village in the self-declared independent Russian republic of Chechnya, even teenagers and the elderly were preparing to fight on Dec. 13, arming themselves with knives, sticks, and a vast array of simple firearms that ranged from AK-47s to crudely fashioned grenades and Molotov cocktails.

``If the Russians continue to wage war against us, I will get on their planes and take hostages, and try to blow up their nuclear power stations,'' boasts Idris Vigeyev, wearing the green headband of the Smertniks - ``death warriors'' who have vowed to sacrifice themselves for their cause.

``It is better to die once than to be a slave for ever,'' he declares.

As the Russian Army slowly continued its advance on Grozny, the Chechen capital, the forces gathering to oppose it appeared a haphazard bunch. The wealthier among them were dressed for the cold in heavy sheepskin coats and ashtrakhan hats - the rest wore ragged work clothes.

Even as Chechen officials loyal to separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev's government continued to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis with a Russian team in Vladikavkaz, near the Chechnya border, Moscow was pressing ahead with its bombardment of the rebel republic.

It has sent columns of tanks and armored vehicles rumbling close to Grozny, and has dropped bombs on Chechen villages and military positions not far away, with several civilian casualties already reported. Russian jets have buzzed the capital.

[Russian troops are to seal off Grozny by the end of Dec. 13, according to the Itar-Tass news agency. Government spokesman Valentin Sergeyev told Interfax news agency that nine Russian soldiers had been killed and 14 wounded by midday Dec. 13.]

But the Chechen people, along with their cousins from the neighboring regions of Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Karbardino-Balkaria, are fighting back.

A proud and fierce Islamic people who still follow a strict honor code involving clan loyalty and blood vendettas, Chechens have long been feared by their northern neighbors. A sinister line written by the 19th century poet Mikhail Lermontov, who fought with the Russian Army in the Caucasus, is familiar to every Russian: ``The evil Chechen crawls onto the riverbank, sharpening his knife.''

Chechens, in turn, see Russia as a fading superpower with imperialist ambitions determined to keep its grip on former Soviet territory under its jurisdiction. This most recent rebellion against Moscow has lasted since 1991.

``The Koran says that everything has a beginning, and everything has an end,'' says Salavdeen Chilayev, an agricultural engineer who has a complete armory at home and is ready to use it. Two years ago, he says, he killed a man who had murdered his uncle. ``The Russian empire existed, but now it will be destroyed,'' he says.

Others who are taking up arms against the Russians were less sanguine about the outcome. ``What the Russians are doing is genocide against two peoples, Chechen and Ingusheti,'' says Umar Arabkhanov, a leader of the Islamist Rebirth Youth Movement in Ingushetia, who says his cousin was killed by Russian helicopter fire Dec. 11. ``They have got us by the throat and they are cutting off our air,'' he says.

Grozny is relatively calm, although loud explosions can be heard on the outskirts of the city, which has had its heat and water cut off by the Russians.

Few Chechens believe Moscow's assurances that its troops intend only to surround Grozny rather than storm it. Open truckloads of Chechen volunteers, waving weapons and cheering, careened along the streets on Dec. 13.

In villages near Grozny, men remained defiant, while women and children looked dazed but not beaten, watching bombs fall on nearby hills from the relative safety of their wooden homes.

``The Russians say they are just here to restore order, but what kind of order is it when they start shooting at peaceful citizens?'' asks Ruslan Galatkov, a young man from neighboring Ingushetia who had come to show his solidarity with Chechen fighters.

``Russia just wants to retain control over the Caucasus,'' he says.

But not all Russians appear keen on such a policy. In the village of Osinkoye on the Ingusheti-Chechen border, about 50 tanks and armored vehicles waited on Dec. 13 for orders to enter Chechnya. Dirty and tired, the battalion of mainly baby-faced Russian soldiers looked warily from the hatches of their tanks.

``I don't want to fight,'' says Sergei, a tank commander. ``It's difficult to say who is to blame for this mess, but I say it is probably [Russian President] Yeltsin.''

Ingusheti villagers near the Chechen border say that some Russian soldiers were so unwilling to enter the breakaway region that they conspired in the sabotage of their vehicles, asking local residents to drain the fuel from their tanks to immobilize them.

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