Russians Capture Grozny
Rebels Vow to Fight on as Ruined Chechen Capital Falls
By Daniel Williams
The capture of Grozny marks a major turning point in the war and has long been one of Russia's expressed requirements for declaring victory. However, fighting raged elsewhere in the breakaway region as the shelling, bombing and combat that has all but destroyed Grozny shifted to towns and hamlets west and south of the city, along routes of rebel retreat.
Tanks and artillery ringed towns, helicopters and ground attack jets struck from the air, and in some localities military police went house to house looking for rebels as civilians tried to flee, refugees said.
Images of Grozny broadcast on Russian television showed World War II-like destruction, as tanks and armored vehicles rolled down streets lined with blasted and burned-out buildings. Houses were battered into misshapen hulks and roads were deserted.
Gen. Gennady Troshev, one of Russia's top commanders, toured the city today and said he had trouble finding intact buildings to use as command posts. After more than five months of bombing and shelling, "the city is ruined," he said.
In addition to capturing Grozny, eliminating large "bandit" units in the southern mountains has been the other expressed Russian requirement for declaring victory in Chechnya. But the separatist rebels have pledged to carry on a hit-and-run campaign against the Russian occupation and even take their battle into other regions of Russia.
Putin announced Grozny's capture during an interview with state television, Interfax news agency said. "As far as the situation in Chechnya goes, I can say the following. A short while ago, the last bastion of resistance of the terrorists was seized, the Zavodskoi district of Grozny," he said.
With the hoisting of the white, red and blue Russian flag over an administration building in the city, Putin said, "We can say the operation to liberate Grozny is over." Although reporters have not been allowed into Grozny, reports from refugees fleeing the city and officials from both sides appeared to confirm the Russian success.
In just six months, the war has catapulted the little-known Putin from his post as head of the Federal Security Service, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, to the Kremlin as handpicked successor to Boris Yeltsin and the heavy favorite in March presidential elections.
The Russian public has largely supported the invasion, designed to bring the region back under direct Russian control after three years of de facto independence gained in a war from 1994 to 1996. The offensive was launched after Chechen rebels made incursions into the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan in August.
Popular support was further galvanized in September, when a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities left 300 people dead and the government blamed Chechens. However, no direct evidence of their involvement has surfaced.
Russian troops suffered heavy losses in the first Chechen war, and in this campaign, Russian forces focused on shelling and bombing to force rebels out ahead of any ground advance. However, the tactics have caused significant civilian suffering. About 200,000 civilians have fled, mostly to the adjoining Russian region of Ingushetia, where they found inadequate shelter and food shortages.
After taking Chechnya's northern plains with little resistance this fall, the offensive stalled in Grozny. Russian ground forces began the assault on the city in mid-December. A conquest that was expected by the Russians to take days lasted more than a month. Snipers held the Russian forces at bay, and they made little progress moving from the fringes of the city.
The breaking point arrived last Monday, when rebels began a hazardous, and by most accounts, disastrous retreat west and south from Grozny. Several hundred tried to escape by heading west of the city but ran into a mine field. Scores were killed and wounded, including Shamil Basayev, who was injured, the commander Russia regards as Chechnya's terrorist mastermind.
Today, Basayev and another field commander pledged to initiate "total military actions on the whole of Russian territory." On a television broadcast, they claimed to have enough resources to wage war for 50 years. But the commanders said they will not harm Russians whose "hands are not stained with the Chechen blood."
Rebels have scattered to towns in western Chechnya, some behind Russian lines, and hundreds have made their way to the southern rebel-held mountains. As rebels appeared in western towns, the Russians reverted to bombing and shelling.
Today, artillery ringed the town of Katyr-Yurt, just a few miles north of the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Helicopters fired rockets into several hamlets, including Shaami-Yurt, north of Katyr-Yurt. The Russians said they have captured hundreds of rebels in and outside Grozny.
Tahir Pasholov, who fled his town of Samashki and reached Ingushetia even though Russia has closed the border, said, "Soldiers are invading houses to look for guerrillas." He insisted rebels had fled the day before. Pasholov suffered light leg wounds from shrapnel when Samashki was shelled on Saturday.
Although it may prolong the war, Russia intends to reduce the number of troops in Chechnya, now estimated at 93,000. On Saturday, Gen. Valery Manilov, deputy chief of the general staff, said: "I will let you in to a secret. It was decided today to prepare for a withdrawal of a considerable part of the troops engaged there." He gave no numbers.
With the conquest of Grozny, officials in Moscow showed no sign of turning to negotiations. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin's spokesman on the war, said that Chechnya's future includes neither the full withdrawal of Russian troops nor independence.
As for Grozny itself, it may simply have no future. The Kremlin's special envoy to Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, said Saturday that "there is no money" for reconstruction. For the moment, the Russians intend to establish a provisional capital in Gudermes, in eastern Chechnya.
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