A frightened village waits for the tanks to roll over it

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The Independent Online
Piervomaiskoy - Standing at a bridge on the northern crest overlooking this Cossack village near Gronzy, the Chechen capital, local military commander Issad Dolkhayev trains his binoculars on clouds of dust rising in the distance. His men are har rying acolumn of about 60 Russian tanks trying to advance along a line north of their village to Grozny, eight miles farther east.

A former officer in a Soviet tank unit, he knows what he is looking for as he searches to see if the harrying fire is on target.His lieutenant stands immobile as overhead four Russian fighter planes trace huge circles over the combat zone. Behind, a crowd of shouting villagers tries to hurry along an ambulance.

About a half-hour earlier Russian helicopters made their second attack on Piervomaiskoy, a village of some 5,700 people, wounding two women. Angry residents point to a shell casing dug half-way into the middle of the main street, with shrapnel scattered across a 10-yard zone.

"Look, she was only trying to go home, she never asked anything from anyone, and she was even Cossack, almost Russian," cried one woman.

The victim was 66-year-old Lydia Kuznetsova. Wrapped in a huge coat and holding her left side, she was carried out of her small, wooden-framed house on a stretcher, her face pale and frozen with shock.

Outside another women screamed: "This is all Dudayev's fault," referring to Chechnya's secessionist president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who has defied Moscow by refusing to retract his three-year-old independence proclamation. But a neighbour quickly told her, "Quiet down, Dudayev lives near here, too. It's these Russian bastards who are causing all the trouble."

"Come see, look what they are doing to us," pleaded Vakhid Assayev, the village's chief administrator, insisting a journalist follow him into a disused kindergarten. Three rockets had slammed into its courtyard, causing the roof of an outbuilding to crumble from the impact. Inside, the stove was still hot.

"This place was used as a soup kitchen for the poor. The cook was seriously wounded and taken to hospital," he said.

The first salvo of shells hit the village during the night but caused no casualties. "Our only strategic targets are these small guys with automatic weapons," he said, pointing to truck carrying four young men armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers rushing towards the village "front".

Not far away in the courtyard of the municipal garage, a driver was warming up the motor of a light armored vehicle mounted with an anti-aircraft cannon. Between the bridge at the village's northern border where Lieutenant Dolkhayev gazed into the middledistance and at a crest farther on, an old car shuttled back and forth taking the commander's orders to his men. He insisted they had not yet suffered any casualties but would not let journalists go up the hill.

He said the Russian tank column was trying to make it way to Grozny after entering Chechnya from the city of Mozdok to the northwest, in the neighboring republic of North Ossetia.