AS fierce street battles for control of the Chechen capital of Grozny hit a lull yesterday, Chechen fighters claimed they had repulsed most Russian troops from the city center.
After three days of bombardment by Kremlin-backed soldiers both on the ground and from the air, the Chechen capital was largely quiet following President Boris Yeltsin's fierce New Year's Eve offensive.
Burned-out Russian tanks and other armored vehicles lay strewn about the central square and adjacent streets. Bodies of dead Russian soldiers lay near them, silent witnesses to the fierce resistance the badly equipped Chechens have managed to display against their militarily superior enemy. (Chechnya war may break the bank for Russia, Page 7).
Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev vowed to ``cleanse'' the city of rebels by the end of the week. But intense house-to-house fighting by the desperately outgunned Chechens has staved off a complete Russian victory in the capital.
The Presidential Palace of separatist leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev and key administrative buildings remained largely in Chechen control yesterday.
General Dudayev, who had been holed up in a bunker underneath the palace, is rumored to have a special command bunker somewhere else in the city. The rest of his government, including the vice president and foreign minister, have been holed up with heavily armed presidential guards in the basement of the Presidential Palace.
Groups of fighters waved the green-and-red striped Chechen flag from palace windows, many of which still have stacks of sandbags in them. They shouted ``Allah Akbar'' (God is Great), the rousing cry that has kept their spirits high long before Russian forces invaded Dec. 11 in a bid to crush a three-year-old declaration of independence from Moscow.
After three days of heavy bombardment by Russian troops from the air and by ground forces, the center of Grozny was largely quiet yesterday morning.
Russian armored vehicles rumbled their way into the city on New Year's Eve, their assault coupled with more aerial bomb strikes on western suburbs of the city. They fired Grad missiles, artillery, and tank rounds at everything that moved, rousing the highly mobile group of Chechens to fire back.
Within minutes, in effect, the battle-scarred capital became a free-fire zone.
``Boris Yeltsin sent us many New Year's presents,'' said Chechen fighter Muslim Nazarov, referring to the bombs and rockets. ``But we sent him presents of our own.''
He held up a grenade launcher and Kalashnikov rifle, two of the weapons of choice the Chechens have used to devastating effect against the far more heavily equipped Russians.
The pall of thick black smoke from massive oil fires still hangs over the city, lending the whole scene an apocalyptic air. The fires were set by Russian bombing raids on the Lenin oil refinery late last week.
The fires have turned snow black as far as 50 miles from the refinery, and Chechen officials have warned of an ``ecological disaster'' if the fires spread to a nearby warehouse containing ammonia.
In an ironic twist, many of the civilians who have been affected are ethnic Russians who have no extended families with whom to take refuge outside Chechnya. Most of them stay in bomb shelters and basements.
The attack on Grozny has not ended, however. Russian jets carried out more bombing raids yesterday, and sporadic shooting continued in outlying districts.
The Russian troops may have pulled back from the center to regroup and ready themselves for a new assault and may try again to seize the downtown.
The Chechens, meanwhile, have been preparing to continue their fight from the nearby mountains if necessary - and have vowed to carry out a protracted guerrilla war if Grozny falls.
In recent days, many groups of fighters have been moving south and east, although some may have been redeploying to attack the Russians from the rear.
``The Chechens are forcing the Russian troops to use the tactics of assault and retreat,'' says Valentin Sergeyev, a Russian government spokesman. ``They know Grozny well, unlike our troops, who know it only from the map.''
A war from the hills
An untold number of city buildings are in ruins, after more than two weeks of heavy air and ground bombardment. Many apartment buildings have been reduced to piles of bricks, splintered wood, and twisted metal.
Water is gushing from a broken water main on the city's central avenue. The government administration building, the national bank, and other structures near the downtown Freedom Square are in ruins.
Yet none of this seems to dampen the Chechens' willingness to do whatever it takes to completely repel the forces of Russia, the country they have always viewed as occupiers in their small, mostly Muslim republic of just over 1 million people.
``We will never give in to them, never,'' says Chechen fighter Ahmed Ab-Maharja. ``For Allah is on our side.''
Chechens say their fight against Russia goes back centuries, when the old czarist empire first tried to conquer the restive peoples of the Caucasus region. The Chechens fought a war lasting more than a generation in the 19th century, after which Moscow finally did manage to subdue the region.