Chechens face nightmare on Lenin Street

Christopher Bellamy runs for cover in `the most dangerous place in the world'
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Lenin Street in Grozny was probably the most dangerous place in the world yesterday, as Russian shells whooshed and thudded overhead every few seconds against a constant background of machine-gun fire.

The street runs south from the presidential palace for nearly a mile, down to the Minutka roundabout - wide, open, pretty flat, and deadly. By the roundabout we sprinted across to the building on the eastern side where the Chechens were holding. a group

of 17 Russian prisoners in a pitch-dark basement.

Early on, the Chechen fighters said it was normalno, but at about 11am the bombardment intensified, with aircraft screaming overhead.

The fighters were clustered around the building in a variety of garb from civilian clothes to full forest camouflage, carrying Kalashnikovs -all with double magazines taped together - and the occasional, lovingly polished hunting rifle.

By candle-light, the young Russians, all conscripts, looked grimy and tired, but they were being well-treated, perhaps surprisingly, as the Chechens accused the Russians of disembowelling their prisoners and throwing the bodies out of helicopters.

The Chechens said that half a mile up the road the Russians were using "vacuum bombs" - fuel-air explosives -and cluster bombs. These devices distribute lethal force more efficiently over a wide area. "But these boys, what do they know?" said a Chechen fighter, pointing to the captive 18-year-olds.

The "boys" had been taken on 31 December, 1 and 5 January, in different places. Pavel, 18, was captured in front of the presidential palace on New Year's Eve when his eight-wheeled BTR armoured personnel carrier was hit, killing one of the crew. His friend had fought at the railway depot as part of a company of 70 motor-rifle troops committed to the battle for Grozny. Fifteen were taken prisoner, including one officer, but he had no idea what had happened to the others.

The Chechens explained that they had a policy of mixing Russian prisoners from different units. The officers were kept separately.

As we attempted to leave the basement, a Russian aircraft was heard overhead, and people fell down the stairs attempting to get back under cover. The terror any aircraft provokes is remarkable. Leaving the city later, I saw a Russian Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft, the A-10, banking over the reservoir in the south-west of the city. It is extraordinary that one can still drive into Grozny through a Russian ring that has never closed fully. It may be the Russians are leaving a "golden bridge" in and out of the city deliberately, because those who have nowhere to run fight harder than those who have.

Entering Grozny from the west there was a checkpoint manned by "PV" border guards, formerly KGB, and another by the interior ministry troops, the "VV". But all along the miles of grey road, flanked by mud flat fields and scrubby forest, not a Russian army soldier was to be seen, until suddenly Chechen fighters appeared.

Further ahead the Russian presence loomed. To the right, there were four transport helicopters - the ones Nato calls Hip - flying parallel along the road the Russians use to feed their broken ring. Then, to the left, five more Hips appeared and a Hind gunship. Whatever mistakes they had made here, the Russian army and air force in action could still be impressive.

Estimates of the Grozny casualties vary widely, but according to Eric Reumann of the International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday, their work in eight or nine hospitals in the area points to about 2,000 Chechen wounded, and a similar number on the Russian government side. Using the standard ratio of wounded to killed, that would suggest at least 1,000 dead on each side.

Most of the Chechen casualties are civilians. On Mr Neumann's advice, I visited a hospital at Stary Atagi, about 30 kilometres south of Grozny, where many of the casualties from Grozny are taken. At about 1.20pm, three Russian aircraft flew over, big, silvery jets with slightly bulbous bellies, heading for the foothills of the Caucasus. At 1.30pm one of the aircraft headed south east, towards the village of Novy Atagi. Suddenly, the sky was filled with bright silvery-gold lights - the tail flares from rockets. There was a rumble of thunder as they hit the ground, several miles away. And to the north, a different rumble, artillery, still resounded from Grozny - 20 miles away.

"Do you want to see some dead people?" a man from the village asked. I reluctantly agreed. There were six of them, all from Grozny, lying in a makeshift morgue in a garage. One or two might have been soldiers. The rest were older, in civilian clothes. Most were Chechens, but one, with a very bloody face, was either a Russian or a Jew, they said. From their waxen hue, they had been dead for some days. They came from Grozny, and they will be buried there.