Rebel fighters defending Grozny, the besieged and bombed-out Chechen capital, are carrying out surprise raids in and around the city that appear to be throwing Russian forces off balance.
Reports from Grozny, and from refugees who recently fled the Grozny suburbs, say that the rebels have broken the ring of Russian armor and troops around the capital, at least temporarily, and occupied at least two adjoining towns. To the west, Alkhan-Kala was said to be under rebel control as late as this morning, and Alkhan-Yurt until Tuesday. To the east, the guerrillas made inroads into Khankala today, according to unconfirmed reports. All three towns were taken by the Russians more than three weeks ago.
Reports are necessarily incomplete and confirmation of fighting is complicated by Russia's tight control over information and limits on access to the front. In the past few days, official Russian announcements have all but dropped references to advances in Grozny, and today Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said his forces were regrouping.
The reported Chechen counterattacks seem to call into question assumptions by Russian officials that the rebels could not hold out in Grozny for long because of a limited supply of ammunition and nearly continuous bombing and shelling. Rather than launch an all-out attack on the city and risk high casualties, the Russians have counted on long-range firepower to drive out the rebels.
In the first two months of the more than three-month-old ground offensive, Russian forces met little resistance as they swept through northern Chechnya and onto the plains south of the Terek River. Since mid-December, when the Russians began to probe Grozny, the rebels have put up stiff resistance. Chechen refugees here in Ingushetia, the Russian region west of Chechnya, predicted that when Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, ends on Friday, rebel attacks will intensify.
Russian soldiers interviewed in Mozdok, the regional military headquarters, said that a full-scale guerrilla war has begun. A wounded soldier described a hit by rebel mortar: "The regiment commander was riding in . . . on an armored vehicle; I was driving. When we were not far from a [military police] checkpoint, we saw an explosion and I knew we were we hit by mortar. The vehicle overturned. Six guys were killed and several were wounded."
Another soldier added, "There is just plain partisan war going on here. They set up ambushes and attack checkpoints at night."
The Russian New Year's and Orthodox Christmas holiday celebrations are in full swing and it is difficult to gauge whether a spike in negative news will affect the popularity of Acting President Vladimir Putin, who is the leading candidate in the presidential election scheduled for March 26. Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin, who resigned Dec. 31. Putin's appeal, boosted by the war, could suffer if battlefield reverses mount.
Putin, who visited Chechnya over the weekend, continued today to label the war in the separatist region a high priority. As he has before, he equated victory and an end to what he regards as a terrorist threat from Chechen separatists with the fate of Russia as a state.
Russian casualties, meanwhile, appear to be rising. Official tallies acknowledge losses in Chechnya of about eight soldiers a day in recent weeks. Gen. Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, raised the total number of Russian soldiers killed in Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan since August to 544. The total does not include Interior Ministry troops, who have carried out "mopping-up operations" in Grozny. The Russians say that thousands of rebels have been killed in Grozny alone.
Today, the Chechens made unusually upbeat statements. An aide to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov boasted that "the period of the Russian army's triumphant march through Chechnya is over. A turning point in the second war in Chechnya is about to occur," Apti Batalov told the Interfax news agency.
Maskhadov issued a statement calling for a three-day cease-fire in Grozny beginning Saturday. The statement, issued in the neighboring country, Georgia, asserted that Russia used chemical weapons in the capital on Dec. 29. Maskhadov wants international and Russian investigators to inspect evidence of that alleged action.
In Moscow, Manilov dismissed Maskhadov's charges as "disinformation and lies."
It appears certain that the rebels have launched a limited offensive. At a tent city in Sleptsovskaya, near the Chechen border, refugees from Alkhan-Yurt and Alkhan-Kala described the stealthy arrivals of guerrillas to their towns two nights ago. "They told us to leave because there would be more fighting," said Ramazon Sadikov, a refugee who arrived by bus from Alkhan-Yurt on Monday.
In Moscow, Russian officials said that rebels were able to seize Alkhan-Kala by posing as refugees and moving along the Sunzha River from Grozny. However, Gen. Boris Maksin, chief of the general staff of the Interior Ministry forces, asserted that Russian troops have surrounded and begun to "exterminate" the rebels.
Maksin acknowledged that a convoy of Russian trucks on its way to find drinking water was ambushed south of Grozny. "Unfortunately, our troops suffered casualties. . . . Six soldiers were killed and seven were wounded in the action. The bandits managed to burn down five trucks," Maksin said.
Closer to Grozny, the Associated Press reported the capture of 60 Russian soldiers and the occupation of buildings in Khankala by rebel snipers. It was not possible to confirm either report.
CAPTION: Refugees fleeing the Chechen capital, where rebels have made recent gains, talk to a Russian soldier at the border with Ingushetia.