Fierce battles broke out between invading Russian troops and guerrilla defenders of Chechnya today, the sharpest indication yet that Moscow's war on the breakaway republic is escalating beyond a limited punitive action.
Alarmed Chechen officials said dozens of armored columns rolled into the far northern villages of Alpatova and Chernokosova. The Chechens said they had driven the Russians out of Chernokosova, but that as night fell, Russian troops still held Alpatova, which is 60 miles north of Grozny, the Chechen capital.
"A thousand armored vehicles have invaded. I don't have an exact count. I only care about the number we hit," said Chechen Defense Minister Magomed Hamiyev.
As night fell, officials in Naursky, a town in north Chechnya, said heavy fighting continued nearby and in Shyokovsky, a neighboring region. "I can't count the wounded. The fighting's too heated," said Naursky Mayor Daus Bagirev. He said he saw two Russian armored personnel carriers destroyed.
Reports from Moscow gave a more modest version of combat. Officials there reported the seizure of only one village, Borozdinovka, two miles inside the Chechen border, taken without one shot being fired. Generally, Russian officials have tried to play down the level of fighting in Chechnya because Russians are sensitive after losing a humiliating three-year war to the Chechens in 1996.
The recent conflict has been intensifying for more than a month, since Chechen-led guerrillas invaded neighboring Dagestan, seeking to create an Islamic state in southern Russia. Russia drove out the rebels and bombed suspected rebel bases inside Chechnya. Russia then blamed Chechens for a series of bombings in apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities last month in which 300 people were killed. It launched wider airstrikes and sent in troops.
At first, Moscow called the counterattacks an effort to wipe out "terrorists" and "bandits." However, in recent days, officials have spoken of setting up a defensive barrier inside Chechnya to stop Chechen forces from entering other regions, or even establishing a rival government on captured territory.
Chechnya won effective independence from Russia in 1996, following the three-year war. Although an agreement to end the fighting called for talks to work out the region's final status, the two sides have yet to make negotiating progress. Chechnya says it will only accept independence.
Russian generals and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, smarting from the humiliating 1996 defeat, have pledged victory this time.
Valery Manilov, a Russian deputy chief of staff, said Russian troops had clashed with Chechen rebels in several parts of Chechnya. He said the troops are trying to construct a security zone to give Russia "systemic control of all and everything that crosses in and out of Chechnya."
Manilov said Russia would continue airstrikes against Chechnya to keep Chechen forces off balance and deplete their economic base by destroying key industrial and oil resources.
Grozny was bombed for the 10th straight day today, when jets hit a western industrial neighborhood. The city, with block after block of residential ruins from the last war, is suffering electrical blackouts, a lack of natural gas and depleted water supplies. Its parks are overgrown with weeds, its commerce dominated by impoverished markets selling mainly watermelon, soft drinks and beans. Most young men appeared to be carrying rifles.
In the past week, thousands of refugees have streamed from the city west into the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia, for fear of more bombing. "I remember the last war," said Ilias, a truck driver who headed out of town today. "Every day, I see the burned buildings of our city. I don't want to go through that again."
As Ilias waited near the frontier, a dozen Russian armored cars and a few tanks headed north along the border. The sound of artillery echoed in the hills.
Defense Minister Hamiyev said Russian ground tactics are the same as during the first war--rolling in with dozens of tanks and armed vehicles, guns blazing. "I think their tactics have been the same for 500 years," he said.
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov vowed his people would repel the Russians, but also called for face-to-face talks with President Boris Yeltsin. At a news conference in his darkened capital, Maskhadov denied that Chechens had blown up the Russian apartment buildings and said Russia has been pining for war for three years. "Russia is unpredictable," he said at his home. "But I invite President Yeltsin to sit down; with our four eyes at the table, we can stop this in a half hour."
The Chechen government arranged for a large group of reporters to visit Grozny--a rarity, because of chronic kidnapping in Chechnya. Travel into the country was with armed guard, for protection against brigands.
Maskhadov said his country was suffering unfairly from a reputation as a haven for kidnappers, bandits and terrorists, and that the Russian invasion could not be excused. "We should not be left without the protections of international law," he said.
He was at pains to explain why he could not rein in Shamil Basayev, a military commander who led the Dagestan adventure. Maskhadov said he would be able to control Basayev better once Chechnya was recognized as independent. He said kidnappings were a "shame" for his people, but offered no short-term solution.
"We are accustomed to war and suffering. We will fight in the towns, in the mountains and on the farm," he said. "This winter will be hard, without electricity and gas. But we would rather eat dogs and cats than surrender independence."