Mountain Chechens hostile to guerrillas

In Shatoi village, which did a deal to keep away Russian bombers, chris topher bellamy found scant support for the rebel leader
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The Caucasus mountains rise suddenly from the plain round Grozny like an icy fortress wall. Heading into the valley towards Shatoi is like entering a giant castle gateway, with loopholes either side ready to rain projectiles down.

It is as though this country was designed for guerrilla war. A determined and skilful guerrilla commander with the right weapons could hold off the Russians for months. But this is not what the people in the mountains want.

All those who want to fight are in Grozny. The villages do not want the boyeviki - the Chechen militia fighters - to take up residence because that will bring the Russian bombers back.

Support for the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, seems thin. At Shatoi, a large village of 15,000 now swollen by refugees, Gelya Asultanova, 55, a Russian, runs the main cafe. "They'll probably shoot me for saying it," she said, "but what's Dudayev everdone for me? Where's my pension? It hasn't been paid for two years. What about the roads? The children don't go to school ... "

She pointed to the memorial to the dead of the Great Patriotic War, knocked over, locals said, in a Russian air raid. "I've lived here 35 years," she continued. "They were coming over day and night. Why are they bombing me? I'm Russian, for God's sake. If the Russians continue this sort of thing against us, then we will fight."

Throughout the first half of this month there were heavy bombing raids, said Vakha Hadjimuratov, the prefect of the town. "About 30 people were killed and the same number injured," he said.

On 13 January, Vakhid Akayev, who used to head the Philology, Anthropology and History Institute in Grozny, went to Urus Martan, 25 km south-west of the capital, a stronghold of the opposition to Mr Dudayev, in an attempt to persuade the Russians to stopthe bombing. He ran into Sergei Stepashin, the head of the Russian Federation Security Ministry - heir to the KGB.

Through the opposition, the village elders negotiated a deal whereby the Russians would stop bombing if Shatoi elected a "temporary soviet" and banned Chechen guerrillas from entering the town. The bombing stopped on 15 January.

"I don't think there will be a guerrilla war in the mountains. They won't let them in," said Ahmed, Vakhid's younger brother, who used to head the town's community centre until Mr Dudayev closed it. "It was because he doesn't believe in culture," he said. "You can't hold out in the mountains if the villagers won't let you in.

"The only place you might have a guerrilla war is the Vedeno pass" - the next pass to the east and the old hide-out of the master of guerrilla warfare, Shamil.

But much has changed since Shamil fought the Russians for a quarter of a century from the 1830s to the end of the 1850s. Shamil's forces could make their own weapons: the Chechens would need highly sophisticated weapons brought in from outside, especially anti-aircraft missiles. "If we had anti-aircraft missiles there wouldn't be a single Russian soldier in Chechnya" said Ahmed.

Shamil was not constrained by national boundaries: the Chechens have a very small area of the mountains. If they move into neighbouring Ingushetia or Dagestan the Russians will bomb there, too - and the locals are likely to take the same view as the villagers.

nMoscow - Russia yesterday described a threat by Mr Dudayev to spread the war to Russian cities as incomprehensible and said he had lost touch with reality, Reuter reports.

On Saturday, Mr Dudayev threatened to take the war to Russian cities if Moscow did not halt the assault and start peace talks within a month. "It is no problem to burn towns," Mr Dudayev told Interfax news agency.

Moscow's reaction mixed sarcasm with biting criticism. "His position is, to put it mildly, incomprehensible," a government statement said. "The Grozny gang leader has made similar statements before, but unfortunately the nature of his statements does notchange."