By yesterday the world's second most powerful military force had moved on, leaving the villagers of Barsuki to spit curses from the roadside. By yesterday, some 15 miles further along the same road, just past the Friendship Cafe, it was real war. With the serpents of Russian armour strangling the approaches of the Chechen capital, Grosny, the snow-covered fields here heaved with perhaps the biggest battle yet, the frozen ground - and in there somewhere, the enemy - pounded by Grad rockets, artillery andfire from Sukhoi jets.
Beneath a dull grey sky they fought into night - 1,000 miles from Moscow, and even further from the peaceful solution promised just a week ago by Russia's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, and the leader of Chechnya's seccessionist rebellion, President E z hokar Dudayev.
But now you have to retreat back down the road, back beyond even the burnt lorry, to find anyone interested in embracing this particular lost cause with any vigour. Yesterday two dozen men in suits again sat around the large oval table talking about a negotiated settlement.
"I want to continue talking," said a grim-faced Russian delegate during peace talks in the city of Vladikavkaz yesterday, "if we stop talking this will be seen as a signal by the military."
At Sliptovskaya Crossroads, another point on the road to Grosny though, the military of neither Russia nor the renegade region of Cechnya seemed in any doubt about what signal to follow. Attack helicopters clattered to war, scudding just above the trees that line the main road and enclose each cluster of houses, personnel carriers, the faces of their crews unfathomable behind black cloth masks, thundered past, on their way to strengthen the main Russian force hammering its way to Grosny from the west. As night fell, flares and rockets lit the sky.
The target of all this - two columns advancing from the north and east - is an enemy of uncertain means and so far possessed of an unambiguous determination to fight. Chechnya's army of several thousand irregulars, true to a history of hatred that Russiahas been trying to tame since the early 19th century, has shown no hint of surrender to the immeasurably larger force arrayed against it. Nor has any of the other dozens of Muslim peoples of the Caucuses.
Particularly belligerent are the Inguish whose territory the Russian army has had to pass on the road to Grosny. "This will be a very long story, it will last as long as a single Checyan or Inguish is left," said Abubakar Arapahanov watching the battle from the side of the road.
Russia says nine of its soldiers had been killed by late yesterday. But there are signs that field hospitals are already unable to cope with what is most likely a more serious toll.
Russian troops at the front, now only 15-20 miles from Grosny and narrowing, are scared and jittery. They shot at journalists twice. No one was hurt. The Russian military is less easily sent on its way. "I was in Afghanistan, the lesson there is that youshould not interfere where you are not wanted," said Magamyed Khamkhaeyev, a special forces lieutenant. "The Russians are not ready for battle - all they are good at is digging potatoes. I'd settle the problem in five minutes. If Chechnya wants to leaveRussia let it go. [Boris] Yeltsin has already lost half the country: Khazekstan was lost, Ukraine lost, Turkmenistan lost. All gone. What is Checyna to him?"
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