Fears Chechens may retaliate by raiding Russia

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The Independent Online

There is growing controversy in Moscow over how some 4,000 Chechen rebels fled the besieged city of Grozny by slipping through the Russian lines.

There is growing controversy in Moscow over how some 4,000 Chechen rebels fled the besieged city of Grozny by slipping through the Russian lines.

The guerillas left the Chechen capital as troops closed in on its centre by a route through the woods well-known to the Russian army, but soldiers manning nearby positions did not open fire when they saw they were outnumbered, according to Russian press reports.

Chechen officials say they lost 43 fighters and 37 have been wounded by Russian mines, artillery and air strikes. However, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, the Russian Defence Minister, said that 586 rebels had been killed and, once Grozny was finally cleared, troops would move south to the Argun gorge, a key point at the entrance to the southern mountains.

The ability of the Chechens, even at the price of losses possibly more serious than they admit, to escape Grozny shows that the Russian army is short of combat-ready infantry.

This may explain why Vladimir Putin, the acting president, has called up 20,000 reserve officers who are expected to replace soldiers who can then be sent on duty to Chechnya. Russia says it has 93,000 men in Chechnya and has lost 5,000 dead and wounded in the past six months.

Russian control of central and northern Chechnya, the zones it has already occupied, appears fragile. General Anatoly Kulikov, the Russian commander in the first Chechen war in 1995, predicted in an interview with the weekly Moscow News that there would be prolonged guerrilla warfare in Chechnya. He said: "Remember World War II? The Nazis were using their best SS divisions against Soviet partisans but still failed to accomplish their objectives." He called for talks, but not with President Aslan Maskhadov, the elected Chechen leader.

In an inadvertent admission that they have not driven the guerillas into the mountains, Russian officials said yesterday that they had exchanged Andrei Babitsky, the Radio Liberty journalist, for three captured Russian soldiers between Shali and Argun on a road which is meant to be under Russian control.

The impending fall of Grozny is also provoking fears in Moscow that the Chechens will react as they did in 1995, after Russia captured the city, by launching a raid into Russia outside Chechnya to show that they are still a potent force.

At that time Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who was wounded during the escape from Grozny this week, took hostages at Budyonnovsk, some of whom were shot.

For the moment at least, the Chechens are intent on putting on brave faces despite the loss of Grozny. But they may also be concealing divisions among their leaders about the best strategy to pursue, with President Maskhadov reportedly wanting to continue to fight for the capital.

He was apparently overruled by other Chechen commanders who wanted to switch to guerilla warfare.

The Chechen website, the main means of communication for the Chechen leaders, claims that it has discovered the true facts surrounding the death of General Malofeyev, the most senior Russian officer to die in the war. It says that he was captured by a group of Chechen fighters who, for two days, did not believe that he was a general.

Soon after they discovered who he was, he was killed by a Russian bomb. His body was then exchanged for the bodies of five Chechen fighters and a car full of medicine.

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