Rebels suffering heavy losses in Grozny pull-out

Pro-Russian militia leader says capital will be taken within days as remaining fighters are wiped out in street-to-street fighting
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The Independent Online

The remaining Chechen rebels in Grozny braved minefields and artillery fire yesterday as they tried to escape the Chechen capital before it falls to Russian forces.

The remaining Chechen rebels in Grozny braved minefields and artillery fire yesterday as they tried to escape the Chechen capital before it falls to Russian forces.

Chechen officials said that some 2,000 of their guerrillas had broken through Russian lines, though they suffered heavy casualties among senior commanders.

However, the Russian army insists that it has trapped most of the Chechen fighters in Grozny. General Viktor Kazantsev, the overall Russian commander, said: "This myth about 2,000 [guerrillas] breaking out of Grozny has nothing to do with the actual situation."

As bombardment of the ruins of the city continued, Russian military sources said: "Assault units of the Federal Forces encounter hardly any organised resistance." They said that Russian soldiers now control about 50 per cent of Grozny.

Some 400 to 500 Chechen fighters were killed by Russian crossfire when they were trapped in an underpass, according to a Russian military spokesman.

The Chechen capital, which had a population of 400,000 - half of them Russians - until 1995, has now been wrecked from end to end, its concrete apartment building pitted with shell holes where they have not collapsed. Nobody knows how many civilians have survived in the city's rubble.

When Russian forces surrounded Grozny in early December there were estimated to be 50,000 civilians in the city, of whom some 10,000 passed through Russian lines and others may have escaped by alternative routes. Many were too old or sick to move from the cellars where they had sought refuge from the bombardment.

Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord, has confirmed that he was wounded in the leg when he left Grozny earlier in the week but denies that his leg has been amputated as reported by the Chechen forces still in the capital.

Three senior Chechen commanders were killed in the break-out led by Mr Basayev, which will be a blow to the morale of the guerrillas.

Chechen officials are seeking to portray their evacuation of Grozny as a smoothly organised tactical retreat, enabling them to fight on in the mountains.

Senior Russian commanders are now sounding confident that they have broken the back of Chechen resistance. Marshal Igor Sergeyev, the Russian Defence Minister, on a visit to Chechnya, said: "Conditions have been created for a successful and early termination of the operation."

He was apparently referring to the war in Chechnya as a whole, though Chechen officers insist that Russian army control has only a fragile grip on the villages and towns in the republic which it has captured.

Russian forces are now likely to move on Alkhan-Kala, a village under Russian occupation, but in fact controlled by the Chechen forces that fled Grozny earlier in the week. A villager said yesterday: "Federal troops fear confronting the rebels, and take their revenge on civilians."

The reason for the Chechen retreat was apparently a shortage of ammunition and food as well as the unrelenting Russian bombardment. They also lost control of Minutka Square in the centre of Grozny.

From the beginning of the siege, however, a Chechen fighter said they would hold the capital long enough to cause Russian casualties and then escape. But their withdrawal has apparently led to higher losses than they expected.

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