Chechen rebels flee Grozny

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The Independent Online

Some 2,000 Chechen rebels abandoned Grozny after months of relentless Russian ground and air attacks and were trying Tuesday to get through the federal lines and escape.

Some 2,000 Chechen rebels abandoned Grozny after months of relentless Russian ground and air attacks and were trying Tuesday to get through the federal lines and escape.

Chechen and Russian commanders said that some rebels were still fighting in Grozny and the insurgents had not given up the Chechen capital altogether, although a large part of the garrison appeared to have left.

The Chechen fighters started leaving Grozny in groups on Monday with the exodus continuing overnight, according to rebel commanders and residents in nearby villages. There was no sign that any of the estimated 15,000-40,000 civilians trapped in Grozny had been able to flee.

Several prominent Chechen commanders were killed or badly wounded when a large contingent of rebels blundered into a minefield on the edge of Grozny, according to Chechen fighters and local residents. Dozens more fighters were killed or wounded when Russian artillery pounded the rebel force trapped in the minefield, they said.

Russian officials sought to play down the development, insisting that major fighting was continuing in parts of Grozny. Government spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said reports of a major rebel breakout had not been confirmed

But Col. Alexander Veklich, a military spokesman in Grozny, told NTV television that groups of rebels had tried to break through to Alkhan-Kala and "now these groups are being destroyed."

"One of these groups hit the minefield, the other was destroyed by our units' artillery fire," he said.

One rebel fighter said that the rebels decided to quit Grozny because of the relentless Russian bombardment. "They weren't engaging us in open combat, they were simply killing us with their bombs," said the rebel, who gave only his first name, Akhmed.

Even if the rebels have given up the battle for Grozny or are preparing to do so, the Chechens are not likely to end the war. The rebels lost Grozny in the 1995, but continued fighting until they retook the city in 1996.

The rebel strategy in Grozny was to inflict as many losses as possible on the Russians, but to avoid suffering heavy casualties that would harm their ability to continue the war.

Among the Chechen commanders reportedly killed were Aslanbek Ismailov, who had headed Grozny's defenses, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov, and Grozny Mayor Lecha Dudayev. Notorious Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev was reportedly badly wounded when his car was blown up by a mine.

The rebels were regrouping in Alkhan-Kala, on the outskirts of Grozny, and heading for rebel positions in the southern mountains. Others said they were heading for their native villages.

Russian combat units ringed Alkhan-Kala with tanks and armored personnel carriers but appeared reluctant to move in and attack the rebels. A few skirmishes erupted on the outskirts of the village, and there was desultory artillery fire from Russian positions.

Local people in Alkhan-Kala said that several dozen wounded rebels were lying on the snow around the village's small clinic because there was no room for them inside.

"Wounded fighters lie almost in piles inside the hospital, and we had to put dozens more on the snow outside," said Baiant Munayeva, who helped care for the wounded.

"There is just one doctor, and no medicines, no syringes, no nothing," said Munayeva, visibly shaken and pale from what she had seen. "Dozens have had their legs torn away, and they lie there covered with blood."

News of the rebel move came as Russian forces claimed to be closing in on the center of Grozny, and a top commander repeated Russian predictions that the Chechen capital would soon fall.

"There has been a turning-point in fighting for Grozny," Col. Gen. Viktor Kazantsev said Tuesday, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. "The taking of this city is a matter of the nearest days."

The Russians have been fighting since October to seize Grozny. On Monday, Russian commanders announced that federal forces had finally pushed into strategic Minutka Square after two weeks of fierce combat with rebels. The square is adjacent to several of Grozny's main thoroughfares and could be a staging post to take the city center.

The Russian military previously has made premature claims of controlling sections of Grozny, only to admit later that militants continue to be active there, subjecting federal forces to withering sniper attacks and ambushes.

Russian jets and helicopter gunships flew more than 180 combat missions over Chechnya on Monday, the military said. In addition to Grozny, they targeted the Argun and Vedeno gorges, which are key channels for rebel reinforcements and supplies in the southern mountains.

Moscow sent troops into Chechnya in September after an invasion by Chechen-based militants into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan in August, and a series of deadly apartment bombings elsewhere in Russia that were blamed on Chechens.

(str/vi/ji/ren)

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