Russians in Control of North Chechnya |
By Daniel Williams
GROZNY, Russia, Oct. 6 – Russian troops completed their occupation of northern Chechnya today with an overnight push to the northern banks of the Terek River, as Chechen fighters gave way with little resistance and thousands of refugees fled south across the strategic waterway.
The Russian advance climaxed a week-long blitz that has brought a third of the breakaway region under Moscow's control. Forty-one people were killed when an artillery shell hit a bus while it was crossing a bridge near Chervlennaya, northeast of the capital, Grozny, Chechen officials reported. Ten of the dead were guerrillas, the rest civilians, they said.
The drive brought Russian troops to the northern side of the Terek, which now forms a natural front line, and within 15 miles of Grozny. Warplanes have hit oil refineries, brickworks and other industries in and around Grozny, along with residential neighborhoods, but it has not been attacked by ground forces.
In anticipation of a ground assault, however, President Aslan Maskhadov imposed martial law on Chechnya and requested Muslim clerics to declare a holy war on Russia "to preserve the sovereignty and integrity of the country." It was a largely symbolic gesture given the fragmentation of authority in Chechnya.
"From today, Chechnya accepts the war offered to it by Russia," said Mairbek Vachagayev, Chechnya's representative in Moscow.
The Chechens claim to have shot down two Russian aircraft, an Su-24 and an Su-25,since the beginning of the air campaign against the northern Caucasus region. The crewmen of at least one of the jets are dead, Chechen officials said – one in the crash, the other stoned to death by a mob.
A wing from the Su-25 was displayed on a pedestal in Grozny's central square. Embittered residents viewed it with satisfaction. "I am content," said Fatima, a young hair stylist. "We have no lights, no water. These planes are responsible."
By taking the Terek's north bank, the Russians have completed a key phase of their advance. The river is a natural barrier to counterattack by the Chechens. It also provides a convenient element in the creation of the "cordon sanitaire" Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says he wants to construct around Chechnya.
The buffer zone is meant to prevent incursions by Islamic rebels from Chechnya into neighboring Caucasus regions. Chechen military commanders provoked Russia into battle by leading raids into Dagestan in August with the aim of establishing an Islamic state. Russian officials also have blamed Chechen terrorists for a series of apartment building bombings in Russia that killed nearly 300 people.
The August incursions were repelled and now Russia has unleashed a punishing offensive.
Some Russian and Chechen officials speculate that Moscow will be satisfied with controlling a third of Chechnya and leaving the rest to the beleaguered and factionalized Grozny government. Chechnya is isolated politically – no country recognizes its independence – and economically. Russia cut off gas supplies, in effect creating siege conditions in advance of winter.
Anatoly Kvashnin, Russia's armed forces chief of staff, said today the fighting will end when a security zone is in place. The population in the zone will live under Russian administration, Putin said Tuesday. In effect, Russia would establish an alternate Chechnya on one-third of its territory.
But no one is absolutely sure that Russia will stop at the Terek. In 1994, when Moscow moved to crush independence rebels in Chechnya, Russian troops also rolled easily to the north bank. Most of the territory in north Chechnya is lightly populated steppe – perfect for Russia's tank and motorized regiments.
In the first war, the Russian army went on to Grozny and other towns and villages, their way paved by devastating artillery and jet bombardments. In 1996, the Russians were driven from the capital, retreated from the country and conceded Chechnya virtual independence. That status has yet to be ratified in a treaty, however, and Putin regards it as a humiliation for the central government, insisting Chechnya is and will remain part of Russia. From the Chechen point of view, that means prolonged war, and so far, it appears that Maskhadov is conserving his forces.
"It's a tactical retreat," said Apti Batalov, a top official in Maskhadov's administration. "North of the Terek is in Russia's control."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company