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Kremlin film makes heroes out of paratroops it left to be massacred

One of the Russian army's most haunting defeats at the hands of Chechen separatists has been turned into a patriotic war film on the Kremlin's orders.

The bloody episode, in which 85 Russian paratroopers from the same town were massacred on a fog-shrouded Chechen hill in 2000, is known to fascinate President Vladimir Putin.

The incident occurred soon after he became president and ordered Russian troops into Chechnya for the second time in a decade to quell separatist sentiment. At the time, news of the massacre badly dented Russian morale, causing some to question the war, and triggering a national outpouring of grief.

The Kremlin-funded film, Proriv ("Breakthrough"), purports to depict faithfully the military debacle. For some in the Russian army, the film's subject remains a cause of shame since it was poor planning, poor equipment and poor intelligence that landed the paratroops in such a dire predicament.

But the film's makers say that, far from being a cause for regret or shame, their retelling of the story will prompt young people to ponder the meaning of duty and Rodina (Motherland). Though the battle ended in the defeat, it is being held up six years later as an example of sacrifice, bravery and love of country.

The events unfolded between 29 February and 3 March 2000 after 90 Russian paratroopers, all from Pskov, were told to defend a hilltop against a force of 2,000 Chechen fighters.

In the film, the rebels are portrayed as a rag-tag army of extremists, mercenaries, and drug-addicts, intent on breaking out of the hills and swarming into towns and villages to take hostages.

All that stands between them and a bloodbath akin to the Beslan school siege are the 90 men of Sixth Company, many of whom are inexperienced conscripts.

Thick fog prevented the Russian military from providing close air support as its helicopters were not equipped with all-weather radar. Outnumbered and outgunned, the paratroops eventually resort to luring the Chechens towards their own position and summoning planes for a massive air strike on their own position.

Some reports say that the Chechens offered to spare the paratroops' lives if they let the rebels pass, but the Russians refused. Of the original 90 paratroopers, only five survived.