Angry Moscow denies accounts of Grozny defeat

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Russian troops yesterday brushed off suggestions that they had suffered a major setback at the hands of Chechen fighters in Grozny as the Russian military machine went into action again in the Chechen capital.

Russian troops yesterday brushed off suggestions that they had suffered a major setback at the hands of Chechen fighters in Grozny as the Russian military machine went into action again in the Chechen capital.

"No, I don't think we lost 100 dead," said Alexei cradling his sub-machine-gun in his lap and staring out across the dirty plains along the Terek river north of Grozny. "I think they said on television that we lost four tanks, but I didn't hear anything more."

Asked if it was possible, as reported from Grozny, that a Russian armoured column had lost its way in the fog and blundered into an ambush laid by Chechen fighters in the heart of the city, Alexei admitted that such mistakes did happen. "All war is like that," he said.

Few of the 100,000 Russian soldiers in Chechnya had heard of their army's first serious setback of the war. For the past three months its armour and infantry have moved remorselessly forward through Chechen towns and villages behind a barrage of bombs and shells, which slammed into Grozny again yesterday.

"It doesn't sound like something that would happen in this war," said Sergei, a more senior Russian, admitting that he had heard reports of the ambush on foreign radio.

In this he is right. It was in the last Chechen war, in 1994-96, that Russian armoured columns were twice caught up in murderous street battles in the ruins of Grozny, suffering serious casualties.

Nor was the Russian army eager to publicise the news. In a small cramped room marked "Information Centre" in Mozdok, the command centre for the Russian forces in Chechnya, an official said there was "no statement about the alleged attack, though we denied it on TV".

In strongly worded language reminiscent of the Cold War, a spokesman in Moscow for the successor organisation of the KGB, Alexander Zdanovich, accused Western correspondents in Grozny of working for foreign intelligence services bent on whipping up "anti-Russian sentiments" abroad.

"(The news coverage) is clearly an active operation carried out by foreign special services making use of correspondents. We should not be coy about this," Mr Zdanovich told NTV television.

"For some reason people have felt ashamed of admitting that correspondents are still being used by foreign special services. A co-ordinated propaganda campaign is being waged with regard to Russia and all the actions we have seen recently are manifestations of this policy," he said. The Russian troops along the Terek still look confident and relaxed, individual vehicles moving alone, showing they have no fear of ambush. The main bridge is well defended with bunkers but soldiers were strolling about, smoking cigarettes, obviously thinking an attack unlikely.

The initial Chechen success in Grozny will probably have little impact on the way Russia is conducting its campaign in Chechnya. Its losses in the Chechen capital were probably the result of over-confidence by commanders who pledged that they would avoid the military fiascoes of the last Chechen war.

Its impact on Chechens might be greater. "One Chechen military success could change the mood of despair among people and increase their willingness to fight," said Usam Basaev, a Chechen journalist. Until now the Chechens have been unable to repeat their successes of the last war, when they regularly caught Russian units by surprise.

The Russian public is likely to remain largely ignorant about its first setback in the Chechen war, since news bulletins only cited foreign reports. The Russian media continues to cover the war as a procession of victories. Television correspondents invariably stand with heavy artillery firing in the background. They seldom say anything about what is being targeted. AVN, a military news agency, was the only part of the media to confirm Russian losses, saying military sources said those killed in the overnight fighting totalled 50, before the denials kicked in.

The tactics of the Russian army may have changed since 1996 but not the behaviour of troops in occupied villages. Rustam, a Chechen who escaped from Grozny earlier in the week, passed through the village of Alkan Yurt, part of which was being systematically looted.

"We saw an armoured personnel carrier near a well-built house," said Rustam. "It smashed down the doors into the courtyard. I noticed how relaxed the soldiers were; they showed no shame or worry. They were carrying out porcelain, carpets and a box marked Sony. The man in the APC shouted "Did you find anything?' "