Chechen fighters shrug at shellfire

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The Independent Online
Grozny - Chechen fighters clung to the centre of Grozny yesterday despite fierce Russian artillery and mortar fire. Hundreds of fighters with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket grenade launchers swarmed through the side streets leading to the central F reedomSquare in front of the presidential palace.

Shells and mortar bombs hit the square at the rate of four or five a minute at times,but Chechens moved across the open ground and into the palace with little more than a shrug of their shoulders at the risk.

The Russians seemed to be pouring shells into the city centre to suppress troop movements but with little apparent effect. The only time Chechen fighters in the area showed the slightest concern was when a tank roared up the central Prospect Avrtukhanovastreet from the direction of the palace. They immediately dived into destroyed buildings and took up ambush positions on either side of the wide thoroughfare, grenade launchers at the ready.

Reporters who entered the presidential palace found it packed with Chechen soldiers and some civilians, including women sheltering in the basement. From the marble lobby of the Modern building, whose upper stories have been scorched by shell fire, the view was of devastation. Burnt-out, shrapnel-riddled cars and trucks littered Freedom Square, itself pitted by shell holes. Light snow fell through air dimmed by smoke from countless fires burning across the city.

To the south, across the river, lay the remains of five Russian tanks, marking high water of the advance into Grozny. The incinerated body of a crew man sprawled in a hatch by which he failed to escape.

"America was always afraid of the Russians, but you can see that was not necessary," said Selim, bundled up in a fur hat and lambskin jacket and carrying a sawn-off shotgun as well as a Kalashnikov. "You can see here in Grozny that the Russians are not so difficult to kill."