"These people. They fight like werewolves. By day they are human. By night wolves. It is much worse than Afghanistan. The Chechens are the toughest, cruellest people in the world," he said.
There were six of them, in their late twenties, all from Siberia, tall and athletic with several days' growth of beard.
They were Spetsnaz - Russia's elite special forces. They had just come out of Grozny, where they had been part of the assault on the presidential palace. One had a bandana round his head, the others black woollen hats. In the butts of their automatic rifles with double magazines, taped together, were field dressings bound with military tourniquets of rubber tubing. As the one with the bandana filled in a form to order a phone call home, a small boy examined the rifle slung over his shoulder, fascinated.
Mozdok is the headquarters of General Kvashnin, who commands the operation in Grozny, a hundred kilometres away, and the main logistic base as well as an airfield. The post and telecommunications office is the only place troops can call home.
Vyacheslav was 25, Andrei, 27. To the experienced professional soldiers it was a job, but one they did not relish. Unnecessary, one said. "If you're going to establish an office here to cover this war, your grandchildren will still be working in it," said Vyacheslav.
The road north to Mozdok on Saturday was filled with lorries and armoured personnel carriers heading east and south, through Znamenskoye, 60 kilometres north-west of Grozny.
Towards the city, in the first column, there were more than 80 lorries and 36 armoured personnel carriers, including the latest BMP-3S, with vicious long, thin cannon. They were Interior Ministry troops, with the divisional insignia of a yellow puma on ared circle. They were serious men in their thirties, even forties, with leather helmets and balaclavas, shielded against the bitter cold. On the back of the BMPs were pine logs, so they could back on to them and get another few degrees depression out ofthe guns.
Some lorries were carrying ammunition in slate grey boxes. On others, beneath camouflage nets, were what looked like big rockets - 10in across - maybe for 220mm launchers. Fabric covers were tightly buttoned. Some were lorry-loads of firewood and beds - for hospitals, for the soldiers do not usually sleep in beds.
There were command and signals vehicles, festooned with aerials. There was a battalion's worth of armoured vehicles alone, and with all the infantry, it could have been a three- battalion regiment - a regiment planning for a long stay.
No sooner had this column passed than there was another, as big again. An officer at the front waved us urgently to the side of the road. These had no Interior Ministry insignia.
And then, shortly before the river Terek, in the distance, a third group was encamped, with BMPs in a circle, cannon facing outwards, and 10 in the middle. Another battalion at least.
There was no question where the Russian forces were going.
General Kvashnin's headquarters is just outside Mozdok, over a railway line where more BMPs were rolling in on flatcars. It was not possible to interview the general, they said. "What's the good of talking to them anyway?" said the guard on the gate. "You're better off getting your own information in the town."
On Friday, Russian television said there were 279,000 troops in Chechnya, an incredible number. Applying the usual rule-of-thumb, a figure of about a fifth seems plausible.
General Kvashnin, formerly chief of the main operations directorate of the General Staff, took command of the operation on 21 December. General Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, who is widely blamed for the Chechnya fiasco, flew him down but did not tell him he was to replace General Mityukhin until he arrived.
General Kvashnin decided to change tactics. The forces of the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, had excellent reconnaissance and communications. They knew the areas and moved as secretly as possible. What the Russians describe as the second stage of the operation began on 31 December. The Northern group, commanded by Lieutenant-General Rokhlin of VIII Corps, moved into the city and encircled the presidential palace, but did not attack.
The 19th Division, tasked with attacking the railway station, was particularly demoralised. General Kvashnin replaced its commander, General Petruk, with Lt-Gen Todorov on 1 January, but General Todorov delayed and was replaced a day later with Major-General Ivan Babichev, former commander of the 76th Airborne Division, who reached the station with two battalions in two hours. The cost of the learning curve has been colossal.
On guard outside the Mozdok headquarters was Maxim, 19, an Interior Ministry soldier, in a black-leather coat with brown fur on the inside and valenki - felt boots, vital against the cold. On a sunny afternoon it was minus 10C, and dropped to minus 20C at night. But this essential clothing was received only on 27 December, he said.
The soldiers believe 7,000 have died in Chechnya - double the pessimistic figure circulating in Moscow. "Every night the black tulip [nickname for the flying black maria] goes and picks up dead bodies,'' he said. "Who needs this war?"Reuse content