Russia claims successes in Chechnya counter-offensive

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The Independent Online

The Russian military claimed to have retaken the offensive in Chechnya, seizing strategic heights near a southern rebel base and repulsing an attempt by militants to break out of the capital Grozny.

The Russian military claimed to have retaken the offensive in Chechnya, seizing strategic heights near a southern rebel base and repulsing an attempt by militants to break out of the capital Grozny.

After facing little resistance in its months-long drive to take control of Chechnya, Russian forces have been forced on the defensive in recent days by strong rebel counterattacks. Over the weekend, rebels mounted fierce surprise assaults on the Russian-controlled towns of Shali, Argun and Gudermes.

By Wednesday, the Russians claimed to have full control over the three towns after heavy air and artillery attacks, and penetrated further into the rebels' mountainous southern redoubt. But rebel fighters were still holding parts of Shali and Argun, according to Russian news reports.

Overnight, Russian paratroopers took control of a mountain road leading to the rebel-held village of Sharoi and captured the strategic heights overlooking the village, the military announced Wednesday. It said that rebels in the Sharoi district would now be prevented from getting reinforcements, weapons and medicines.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continued in Grozny, with helicopter gunships rocketing suspected rebel targets. Russian forces claimed to have prevented 30 rebels from escaping the city overnight, shooting and killing nine of the militants.

In all, Russian aircraft flew more than 40 combat missions in Chechnya on Tuesday. The ITAR-Tass news agency said that up to 70 rebels were killed and 10 rebel bases were destroyed, while three Russian soldiers were wounded in the fighting. However, the Interfax news agency, citing preliminary reports, said that 15 Russian servicemen were killed and 38 wounded in Chechnya on Tuesday.

In spite of the optimistic reports from Russian military headquarters, federal commanders admitted that further operations would be necessary to fully clear the rebels from Argun, east of Grozny, and Shali, to the southeast.

Interfax, citing unnamed military sources, said that rebels were still holed up Wednesday in three neighborhoods in Argun and that dozens of militants remained in Shali. The Russians planned to resume the search for rebels in the towns on Wednesday.

A new wave of refugees fled Chechnya for the neighboring region of Ingushetia on Tuesday, ITAR-Tass reported. It said that many of the 2,057 people registered said they feared more rebel attacks on Russian-controlled territory.

About 280 civilians left embattled Grozny on Tuesday, the Ministry for Emergency Situations said.

However, males aged 10-60 were not being allowed to leave or enter Chechnya, following an order Tuesday that all Chechen men between those ages would be investigated for terrorist ties.

Alarm in Moscow over the latest attacks was underlined yesterday by the calling of a Kremlin meeting at which defence and security chiefs reported on the fighting to Vladimir Putin, acting president. Igor Sergeyev, Defence Minister, said the meeting focused "on steps to stabilise the situation in Argun [another town entered by the guerrillas] and Shali and prevent the repetition of rebel attacks".

This is a far cry from claims by the Kremlin last month that the war was drawing to a close, with Grozny about to fall and surviving guerrillas penned in the southern mountains. For the first time also officials are admitting they need to change tactics.

The withdrawal of guerrillas from Shali, a market town on the Chechen plain, came after pounding by Russian artillery, according to an Interfax correspondent. This was directed primarily at civilian targets and not at guerrilla firing positions, which were too close to Russian troops to be attacked.

What was not clear was whether Chechen fighters were also withdrawing from Argun, east of Grozny. Isa Munayev, another Chechen commander, said the road between Argun and Shali was fully controlled by his forces. He also showed off two Russian armoured troop carriers captured by his men.

The Russians are attributing the swift recapture of Russian-held towns by the Chechens to the fact that many guerrillas had stayed behind when they were first taken by Russian forces. In many cases local leaders negotiated the withdrawal of rebel fighters to stop the relentless Russian air and artillery attack.

Marshal Sergeyev said the most important decision at yesterday's conference in the Kremlin was to ensure Russian forces really did control Chechen towns, which it had nominally occupied. This means Russia will extend its notorious "sweeps" of Chechen communities, during which anybody who might be a rebel sympathiser is detained. In the past these measures have further alienated the Chechen population.

The guerrillas appear to be pursuing the same tactics that they used in the last war in Chechnya in 1994-96. These were to allow Russian forces to enter towns and villages and to counter-attack, getting close enough to Russian strong points to make it impossible for Russian aircraft and artillery to bombard them without hitting their own men.

The upsurge in fighting is likely to lead to a fresh wave of Chechen refugees fleeing to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, from which many of them had returned over the past month.