Proud Chechens Ready for Russia's Next Move

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

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.

``People should realize that this is not a whim of the president or a desire to flex his muscle,'' Mr. Kostikov said. ``The president is deeply upset.''

Meanwhile, deputies in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, collected enough signatures yesterday to force an extraordinary session to debate the Chechen conflict. It was not clear when the session would be held.

There are signs that international opinion may finally be having some impact. Yeltsin ordered a halt to aerial bombing raids on the city Wednesday after weeks of attack that reduced much of the area to rubble and killed scores of civilians. It was the second time in 10 days he has made such and order; the first time raids continued unabated.

The toll rises

His decree made no mention, however, about equally damaging air attacks on villages and highways south of Grozny. Bombs struck the major town of Shali, about a half-hour's drive south, on Tuesday, killing an untold number of civilians. One hit a crowded marketplace; another a hospital. Funerals continued throughout the day Wednesday in a place where no one suspected bombs would fall from the sky.

Closer to Grozny, more civilians were killed when jets fired rockets along a major east-west highway. Several cars and a truck were destroyed in one attack at an intersection where people normally set up roadside fruit and soda stands. Bodies lay sprawled next to the vehicles.

The carnage has continued to bring mounting criticism of the entire Chechnya operation, both in Moscow and locally. A prominent pro-reform member of the Russian parliament sharply denounced Yeltsin and Russian commanders for ``this crime against humanity.''

``Yeltsin is directly responsible for these losses and for the fact that the Army is involved in a dirty war,'' declared Anatoly Shabad, once one of Yeltsin's strongest supporters.

The silver-haired deputy arrived in Grozny with a parliament delegation just before New Year's and sat out the main battle in the basement of the Presidential Palace. He then documented the aftermath, calling the area around the train station ``a cemetery of the Russian Army.'' Shabad also visited Shali after the Tuesday bombings.

``Out of frustration and revenge for the weekend disaster, they have shifted to a policy of annihilation against the people of this republic by bombing southern villages,'' he said, looking shaken after his own personal ordeal.

Mr. Shabad gained notoriety when he defended Yeltsin in fistfights with conservatives right on the floor of the parliament two years ago. Now he says he will never support Yeltsin again, describing the Chechen situation as ``a severe blow to the process of developing democratic institutions in Russia.''

A moral limit

``We have no one else [but Yeltsin] to guarantee the reform process'' he said, speaking in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. ``Nonetheless there is a moral limit that cannot be crossed. We cannot support him. I will do all I can to stop him from being president, as that is the only way to stop this war.''

Shabad predicted that Yeltsin's days in power are numbered, with sectors of the military probably already planning a coup against him.

Other deputies and prominent human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov (who also was in Grozny during the siege) are also predicting the events in Chechnya will have major repercussions, whatever the final outcome of the Russians' attempt to crush the Chechens' three-year bid for independence.

``My forecast is that after what Russia has done it is clear that Chechnya will not be part of Russia,'' Mr. Kovalyov said yesterday. ``The fate of Russia is one thing, and the fate of the president is something different. I am very concerned by the future of the weak democracy, the future of the free press ... and by issues of law.''

``The president has destroyed his chances to be elected in 1996. He has no chance,'' he added.

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