Chechen rebels kill 37 Russians in ambush

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The Independent Online

The Russian authorities, which announced earlier this week that the war in Chechnya was in effect over, have been left reeling by a guerrilla ambush that inflicted heavy casualties on a convoy near Grozny.

The Russian authorities, which announced earlier this week that the war in Chechnya was in effect over, have been left reeling by a guerrilla ambush that inflicted heavy casualties on a convoy near Grozny.

Only yesterday did military spokesmen confirm that 37 members of a special police brigade had been killed and 12 injured when a band of about 40 Chechen guerrillas attacked their convoy on Thursday.

The Interior Minister, Vladimir Rushailo, called the five-hour battle a "black page in the history of the police", and he was forced to admit: "The situation is complicated, anti-terrorist operations do not always go smoothly and we cannot afford to relax." A Kremlin spokesman explained the heavy losses by saying the attack had been sudden.

The independent NTV channel, which has maintained a more critical approach than other pro-Kremlin stations, said the military had been "premature" in declaring victory after they raised the Russian flag over the rebel stronghold of Shatoi. The military had much explaining to do, NTV said. How did so many well-armed guerrillas manage to attack the convoy on the outskirts of Grozny when the Islamic fighters were supposed to have been pushed back into the mountains and exterminated? And why were the police officers left to fight a losing battle for five hours before reinforcements arrived?

The special police were travelling to Grozny in a convoy of nine lorries when they came under fire from grenade launchers and machine-guns in the Straropromyslovsky suburb, scene of fierce fighting recently in the battle for the Chechen capital. The first and last vehicles were knocked out and a full-scale battle ensued, lasting for five hours, until reinforcements arrived.

Russian officials said many guerrillas had also been killed. But Russian journalists quoted unofficial sources as saying that no Chechen bodies had been found, meaning either that their comrades removed them or that all the guerrillas survived. The Interior Ministry said 80 Chechen men had been arrested on suspicion of taking part in the ambush.

Experts on the Caucasus had been predicting for some time that the Chechens, expelled from Grozny on 6 February and punished by Russian fire in the mountains, were likely to hit back with guerrilla or terrorist attacks.

The Russians may think they hold Chechnya, but despite all the killing and destruction they have not managed to capture an important Chechen field commander.

Earlier this week, the voice of Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, was heard on radio, offering the chance of negotiations, which Moscow rejected.

* United Nations workers who took the first convoy of aid into Grozny discovered "a devastated and still insecure wasteland", the UN refugee agency said yesterday. They reported that far more aid was needed.

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