In a Two-Front War, Kremlin Battles Both Grozny, Russian Fears

IN a scene that reveals Russia's misgivings about the war in Chechnya, women have traveled from far and wide to the headquarters of the Russian assault.

But when they approach officers at the command post in the Mozdok airport in North Ossetia - desperate for information about husbands or sons - their pleas are brushed aside, another example of Moscow's effort to control information about its awkward war in the breakaway republic.

While Russia tries to reverse its initial military losses - by sending in fresh troops and pounding the Chechen capital of Grozny in an effort to seize the key Presidential Palace - officials in Moscow are waging a public-relations war with their own people.

As the war escalates, few reports have surfaced about the fate of Russian troops.

The war has brought 500 Russian deaths so far, according to an unidentified military source quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax. But Russian lawmakers say the death toll is more than twice that high.

The drone of transport planes bringing in new troops and equipment is almost constant through the fog that normally envelops the Mozdok airport. Convoys of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and supply trucks head toward Grozny, their huge wheels and heavy treads churning through the thick mud.

Nowhere else to look

One woman, accompanied by her young son, began weeping when she was told there was no way to know where the body of her husband had been taken after he was killed in Grozny.

``I've heard that he is dead, but how can I lay him to rest,'' she sobbed as her boy watched with a blank stare.

Soldiers at a dimly lit command post in town brush off most requests for information or interviews with Russian commanders, saying all details of the Chechen operation are explained by military authorities in Moscow.

Two women left the command post in distress after a stern-faced lieutenant in a classic Russian fur cap told them there was no way he could locate their missing sons or even find out the whereabouts of their unit.

About 25 women also gathered in nearby Nazran, Ingushetia, close to the battle zone - desperate to find out anything they can about their sons and husbands.

The Ministry of Defense does have a hot line for family members of soldiers fighting in Chechnya, but civilians are taking steps to find information on their own. The weekly newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta set up a hot line on Jan. 9, compiling information from its own correspondents, sources in Chechnya, and human rights groups about Russian fighters.

Meanwhile, Russians are gaining in their slow advance toward the city center. They have kept up an almost constant barrage of tank and artillery fire directed at the palace, now half-destroyed by the incessant pounding.

Backing up the heavy armor, Russian special forces, or spetsnaz, are working their way block by block (building by building in some areas), wearing down the Chechens to gain the symbolic victory the capturing the palace would bring.

Nonetheless, the Chechens vow to fight on, even if the palace finally falls, and heavy combat has occurred in other areas.

In recent days, fighting has shifted to the south, as the Russians try to close off a key highway that is the last remaining access route for the Chechens in into the center.

Russian jets and helicopters have been bombing and rocketing the area repeatedly, hitting apartment houses, rupturing gas mains, and setting whole buildings ablaze.

``We were down in the bomb shelter when we heard the whole building collapse above us,'' said Asa Atuyeva, speaking of her apartment house near the highway. ``I know one person died, and many were wounded, including my husband, even though we were underground.''

One hospital left

The young woman was covered in dust and clearly still in shock. She was sitting in the corridor of the only hospital serving the Chechens now that most of Grozny is under Russian control, about 12 miles south of the city.

``Last Friday was the worst day of the week; there were over 60 injured,'' said Fatima Nasardineva, who is in charge of administering first aid. ``We average at least 50 wounded each day, and almost all are civilians.''

Among those watching the wounded arrive and leave, are over 40 Chechen and Russian orphans, evacuated from Grozny when their orphanage was hit just after Christmas. They now live in a kindergarten across a muddy field from the hospital.

``It's terrible to see this,'' said 12-year-old Ira Deriglazova, as another person was carried past on a stretcher. ``I wish this war would stop.''

Among the hospital patients are four Russian soldiers who now lie on beds with a Chechen guard at the door. One of the men expressed a view of the Chechen conflict frequently heard among the Russian prisoners and even the soldiers during the intense fighting.

``I still don't understand just why this war is going on,'' said Alexander Trupovsky, who was shot in the shoulder during a battle on a hillside south of Grozny.

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