Russians bombard strategic town

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The Independent Online
Argun, Russia, (AFP) - The fighting here intensified yesterday despite an order from President Boris Yeltsin to suspend all military operations, with Russian tanks, artillery and snipers closing in on Chechen forces defending the strategic town.

In some places the two fighters were only a mile apart.

The air rang constantly with the thunder and percussion of the Russian artillery and tanks, the hammer of machine guns and crack of sniper fire.

The Russian side opened up with big guns early yesterday morning after only sporadic fighting on Sunday.

The town lies 18kms (11 miles) from Grozny on the key eastern route to the neighbouring republic of Daghestan where more Russian armour is massed. Encircling Grozny without taking Argun is impossible and the once-quiet town has become a battlefield.

Meanwhile, Israel Abdulhadjil, 35, a commander at Argun, said that Russian warplanes had hit a village in the Caucasus mountains, the farthest south it had struck since the start of the intervention.

At the Argun front, some 200 Chechen fighters, most in hooded white camouflage suits, deployed with bags of rocket-propelled grenades and launchers over their shoulders.

Russian shelling of forward positions could be heard every few minutes. The last residents living on the street leading to the frontline have fled, their houses destroyed by Russian shelling or air attacks.

Despite their resistance, which has frustrated the Russians since they pushed south from the village of Petrovpavlovskaya, Chechen forces are at risk of being slowly bled to death, rather than routed, in a battle of attrition "Their tanks and troops are useless at close range. But we can do nothing against their bombing and all they do is bomb," said Mahommet Veykhano, a 31-year-old soldier, grenades strung across his chest.

Sniping by Russian Spetsnaz commandos has turned the road from the front to the centre of Argun, about two kms (1.2 miles), into a danger zone, Chechen residents said.

But, as in other besieged Chechen points of resistance, morale is extraordinarily high. "The Russians are scared. They don't know what they're fighting for; we do - our homeland," said Alo Gontimirov, standing in the shell-blasted former school that the Chechens use as their base.

Grozny was quiet yesterday, but warplanes struck civilian areas in the city late on Sunday for the seventh day in succession.

A five-storey apartment building in the Microrayon district, where 15 people were killed in an air raid last Thursday, was bombed, injuring six people, said Atiyev Hussein, head surgeon at Grozny's main hospital.

A house was also blown up in the Stari Sonji suburb killing a man and woman, he said.