Defeated Russians crawl out of Grozny

Triumphant rebels escort foes from the city, reports Carlotta Gall

A Russian jeep flying a white flag led a sorry convoy out of the centre of Grozny at noon yesterday. Four military lorries followed, each towing a broken down Russian armoured personnel carrier, bumping along on flat tyres. Chechen fighters, armed with Kalashnikovs, lines of grenades strapped to their chests, sat in the cab alongside the Russian soldiers who were driving.

It was the beginning of the withdrawal of Russian troop, 19 days after Chechen rebels seized control of the city in a devastating raid that left thousands of Russian troops surrounded and hundreds dead.

"The 101st Brigade was surrounded here," said Khunkar Pasha Israpilov, a young Chechen commander whose men now control the area.

"In principle they could not leave, they had no way out. Now I have an order to let them go back to their base in Khankala," he said.

Beside him stood a Russian Lieutenant-Colonel, Igor Rudneyov. "This is the first stage in play," he said. "I think our commanders understand the situation, there is already an agreement and we have mutual trust."

The two sides started talking four days ago, Mr Israpilov said, as Russia's national security adviser, Alexander Lebed, and the Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, secured a ceasefire agreement.

On Saturday the Chechens accompanied a Russian convoy, bringing water, food and medicine toRussian posts, and evacuated the wounded. The Russian soldiers drove through the market, stony faced. The Chechens sitting beside them were shouting to their friends, raising their fists in the air.

The Russians were pulling out of their posts gathering into larger headquarters. Over the next few days they would leave the city for two large Russian bases just outside Grozny, Mr Israpilov said.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rudneyov said: "We have been ordered to let them go, with their armour and weapons. We do not need their armoured personnel carriers or their Kalashnikovs. Lebed said it can be over and done with in 10 days."

Asked if he felt the Russian withdrawal meant a defeat, the Russian colonel said: "No one won, there were losses on both sides. You cannot talk of losing or winning, we came to an agreement."

But while the Russian troops were gathering to leave, the Chechen fighters were settled in among the ruins of the city in freshly dug trenches.

There was no ultimatum for the Chechen fighters to leave the city, Lieutenant- Colonel Rudneyov said. But Sultan Minayev, a Chechen commander accompanying the Russians, said: "Just those who are needed to guard the city will stay. The rest will go back to their bases."

Some 200 Russian servicemen remained in one of the nearby apartment blocks. The windows were bricked up, theground floor rooms sandbagged. Two soldiers stood on a balcony watching the Chechen fighters milling in the streets below.

It was the first time armed Chechen fighters were back in numbers at the Minutka round-about since Russian forces pushed them out in February last year in a bloody battle that cost an estimated 28,000 thousand civilian lives and thousands of Russian casualties.

Dead bodies of Russian soldiers still lay in the streets yesterday from the latest fighting. One blackened corpse was sprawled on the kerb, yards from his burned out truck.

In the city centre Chechen fighters had taken over a key Russian post. A Chechen jeep, flying the green flag of independence, raced past a Russian post on the central bridge.

Towards Government House, which Chechen fighters still gave a wide berth, Russian soldiers were moving in the rubble. Chechen fighters sat 100 yards away. Together they had gathered 22 bodies of Russian soldiers on Saturday morning. The Russian troops, mostly conscripts, appeared exhausted. The bodies were men from their unit. They had fled into a nearby building and held out for days, unaware that another Russian unit was across the street. A Russian officer, finishing a conversation with his Chechen counterpart, said simply: "They want to come in and we want to go."

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