Russian guns blast way forward

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The Independent Online
The skilled and determined Chechen defenders appear exhausted in the face of inexhaustible Russian manpower and, more important, firepower. At 6am local time yesterday the Russians renewed their heavy artillery bombardment of residential areas aro und the city where Chechen defenders have been concentrating.

During the night, mortars - among the best weapons in close urban fighting, as they can lob bombs over high buildings - fired into Freedom Square, just in front of the presidential palace. A group of Russian MPs who had been staying in the palace cellarswere reported to have left during the night.

The Russian forces are working their way towards the centre block by block, mainly supported by artillery. The Forty-Ninth Army has 150 self-propelled howitzers, and it can be assumed that all these are being used, as howitzers also can throw their shells over buildings.

The Russians admit to nearly 400 dead since 11 December, but sources in Moscow estimate the total may be nearer 3,000. Yesterday more experienced and specialist troops continued to flow in through airfields at Vladikavkaz and Mozdok, while a column of nearly 140 vehicles was reported to have crossed into Chechnya from neighbouring Ingushetia.

The reinforcements include units from the Interior Ministry's elite "Independent Division of Special Designation" (ODON), formerly called the Dzerzhinsky Division. Its normal role is the security of Moscow. The Russian Interfax agency said sending the crack formation to Chechnya would not prejudice security in the capital, although there is concern that Islamic groups may mount a terrorist offensive in support of the Chechens.

The army newspaper Red Star said "illegal armed formations" loyal to the rebel Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev were withdrawing from Grozny through surrounding villages but that groups opposed to the rebels controlled the villages of Urus-Martan, Valerik and Gekhi and were hindering their movement. The Russian authorities said since the fighting began more than 104,000 refugees have left Chechnya.

In an opinion poll published yesterday 47 per cent of those questioned thought the use of force in Chechnya was mistaken; 32 per cent thought it was necessary but had been bungled with "unjustifiable" casualties; only 8 per cent supported it. The same newspaper reported that every small cannon shell fired was costing 200,000 roubles (£35), every shell from an infantry combat vehicle 1.4 million roubles and every tank shell 8.5 million - more than £1,000. But whatever the cost, financial and human, the R ussians appear committed to finishing the fight.