RUSSIA'S top military command in Moscow appears to have little idea of what its soldiers are up against in the rebel republic of Chechnya.
Russia sinks deeper into a military morass even as its forces take over the capital of Grozny inch by inch, approaching the Presidential Palace.
Russia has paid for each block it takes with heavy casualties. Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev appeared publicly for the first time in days yesterday, saying he was willing to hold unconditional talks with Russia.
``We were and still are ready for the fourth year now for peaceful negotiations, but Russia is trying to break in an already open door,'' Mr. Dudayev said.
Peace still appears unlikely. Chechen fighters say they will continue to defend their land from the Russian assault, waging a war they have been ready for since the northern Caucasus republic declared independence from Russia in 1991.
Chechens scoff at a Russian offer for amnesty if they lay down their weapons, included in the terms of a 48-hour cease-fire announced earlier this week that temporarily reduced fighting. ``We don't care about any cease-fire or anything else they say in Moscow,'' said Chechen fighter Musa Mukaev in Grozny on Tuesday. ``All it is is words. You can never trust the Russians.''
A colleague in fatigues holding a rocket-grenade launcher was also emphatic. ``Old empires never change their ways,'' he says.
Both men were standing with dozens of their fellow fighters, taking a break from the battle for central Grozny. The heavily armed fighters insist the loss of the palace would not end the war.
``This is really only the beginning; we will fight until all the Russians are out of our country,'' says Macksharip Chudayev, wearing a hooded pullover and holding a new Kalashnikov rifle he says he captured in battle. ``We will attack them anywhere in the Chechen republic, because they have invaded our land. The Russians don't belong here.''
Mr. Chudayev was standing at a traffic circle about 10 blocks from the palace. The circle has become a rendezvous point for civilians, fighters, and journalists as it is the closest place to downtown that is still relatively safe.
Every few minutes, an explosion could be heard coming from Freedom Square as another Russian tank round or artillery shell crashed into the remains of ruined buildings. The fighters are located throughout the city, often moving in to relieve the beleaguered men defending the palace. But many more engage the Russians from the side, taking out armored vehicles with anti-tank grenades and firing automatic rifles.
A war with no boundaries
Besides the battle for the Presidential Palace, clashes have occurred near the train station and in various other districts, reflecting the Chechens' promise that the war has no boundaries.
Moscow's attempt to pigeonhole the Chechens as armed bandits and terrorists, whom the Russian Army could quickly overwhelm, shows how badly the Kremlin underestimated its soldiers' task here. Ukranian volunteers, some of whom are from the region, have joined forces with the Chechens. Some ethnic Russians have also joined the Chechen independence drive, while Chechens have helped civilian Russians trapped in Grozny.
Chechen separatists, on the other hand, have known since Dudayev declared independence from Moscow in 1991 that Russian President Boris Yeltsin might finally turn his full attention to the tiny rebel region of 1.2 million people. They have gathered enough weapons - including from former Soviet Army bases in Chechnya - to wage a long-term guerrilla war.
Also critical to the Chechens' efforts is their military experience. Many of the fighters fought with the Soviet Army against Afghanistan and more recently against separatists in Georgia.
Ready for the mountains
Chechens are ready to take the war to the hills of the nearby Caucasus mountains. The war has already spread to southern villages, where regiments of Russian paratroopers have engaged the Chechens and looked for arms caches. One such unit was surrounded by civilians near a village and surrendered; the 46 paratroopers are now among the hundreds of Russians held prisoner by the Chechens.
Up in the snow-covered mountains, people say they are ready to take part in a ``partisan campaign'' if it comes to that.
``The main fight is still in Grozny, but if the war comes here, we will do all we can to fight,'' says Ilmadu Shaikiev, governor of the mountain district of Nojay-Yurt. ``This is nothing less than a struggle for the Chechens' right to exist as a people.''
The town of Nojay-Yurt spills along several hillsides with small houses perched on them. People were out and about, some carrying buckets of water from a mountain stream, riding on horseback; children were playing on sleds. It hardly looked like a place where war could break out. But several village men reiterated the warning of the urban fighters in Grozny.
``The Russians are capable of anything,'' says one man wearing a thick winter coat.
But back in Grozny, there are new signs of cracks in the Russian armor. Early this week, Capt. Ivan Shebanov, with a bandaged wound on his left cheek, waved a white flag and, accompanied by some of his men, met with Chechens in the beleaguered palace.
``I think this war is an attack on innocent people that none of us can understand,'' he said.
He was received by Chechen commanders in one of the crowded rooms underground. But ultimately, Captain Shebanov and his men left to cross back to their lines.