Chechens braced for renewed onslaught

RUSSIAN PLANES and helicopter gunships pounded the outskirts of Grozny yesterday and seemed poised to enter the Chechen capital as the attention of the Western world was diverted for Christmas. The air force mounted bombing raids while, on the ground, Russian troops clashed with the separatist Chechens at Serzhen-Yurt, just south of Grozny, according to Russia's independent NTV channel.

Some 3,500 civilians had managed to escape along the army's "humanitarian corridors" in the past 24 hours and others had fled over the past few days, NTV said. However, if its earlier estimate that 40,000 civilians were trapped in the city was correct, that left thousands to face an imminent Russian onslaught.

The Interfax news agency said on Tuesday that Russian forces had received orders to move into Grozny. Quoting "anonymous military sources", it said that all the "necessary forces and means" were concentrated around the city and commanders had received "orders to begin the liberation". The Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, said the end of the drive to clear "terrorists" from Chechnya was "close" but he declined to be more specific. "I will not give a date, set a time frame or link it to any anniversary or holiday."

The world has been waiting for the Russians to go into Grozny since earlier this month, when the air force dropped leaflets advising civilians to leave the city by 11 December or risk being taken for guerrillas and exterminated. The West protested at this ultimatum and warned Russia that it could face sanctions if it continued to sacrifice civilians in the pursuit of terrorists.

It would be in accordance with tradition if the Russians moved around the time of the Western Christmas, which is not a holiday for them. On 25 December 1979, Soviet forces entered Kabul, starting the disastrous 10-year war in Afghanistan. In addition, from the government's point of view, the opinion of ordinary Russians matters less now that parliamentary elections are over.

However, federal forces insist they do not plan a frontal assault on the city because that would risk soldiers' lives and bring back memories of the humiliating 1994-96 Chechnya war. Rather, they are hoping that Grozny will fall, suburb by suburb, into their hands, after much shelling and aerial bombing. But they admit that at least 2,000 Chechen guerrillas will be waiting for them amid the ruins, and there will be mines and other traps.

Federal forces have advanced around the edges of the city centre for about two weeks. Interfax said that they had taken Severny airport and the suburbs of Khankala and Chernorechie. Now, special units, including snipers and chemical troops, are ready to penetrate the centre. Chemical troops are needed because the Russians fear the Chechens might detonate oil tanks or chemical stores in a city whose main industry is petrochemicals.

Hundreds of civilians have managed to escape along the "humanitarian corridors", although Interfax made no mention of the civilians still trapped inside the city. Earlier this week, NTV showed pathetically disoriented senior citizens from an old people's home being brought out by bus. But more have stayed, lacking transport to the corridors or, in the case of men, fearing that at the Russian checkpoints they would automatically be arrested as "terrorists". The Russians say that the Chechen guerrillas are using the civilians as "human shields".

In this war, information is as powerful as the guns. The Russians were still denying yesterday that their forces had been responsible for atrocities against Chechen civilians in Alkhan-Yurt, despite evidence from an amateur video that showed Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, Nikolai Koshman, upbraiding federal officers for the slaughter of 41 civilians. But yesterday, Mr Koshman told NTV only that there was "damage" in Alkhan-Yurt and that there would be an official investigation.