Russians braced for Chechens' spring offensive in Chechen hills

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the Russian artillery base of Itum-Kalye, perched high in the mountains of southern Chechnya, Russian officers said yesterday that they feared a spring offensive by Chechen guerrillas attempting to regain the ground they lost in fighting over the winter.

In the Russian artillery base of Itum-Kalye, perched high in the mountains of southern Chechnya, Russian officers said yesterday that they feared a spring offensive by Chechen guerrillas attempting to regain the ground they lost in fighting over the winter.

"I expect the bandits will attack in the spring when the snow melts in the high mountain passes," said Major Sergei Nikolaevitch, of the 721 Artillery Division, as he pointed towards the peaks and ravines that mark Chechnya's border with Georgia.

The giant guns at Itum-Kalye command the Argun Gorge, the key to southern Chechnya, its steep sides covered with trees just coming into leaf. Here the rebels fought from village to village to stop the Russian army advancing south after it captured Grozny, the Chechen capital, at the end of February.

The villages along the Argun river, which flows through the gorge, have paid a heavy price. Viewed from a Russian helicopter flying at 500 feet, every roof looked as if it had been torn apart by explosions, with the white roofing timbers exposed. Shells had smashed farmhouses. All the farm animals, apart from a few cattle, have disappeared.

In his tent at Itum-Kalye, Major Alexander Vinogradov, a veteran from St Petersburg who has spent 16 years in the Russian army and its Soviet predecessor, said he was confident for the moment that the heavy fighting was over. He said: "The rebels have broken up into groups of 10 to 15 men. It is the only way to survive in the mountains until spring."

He said that in recent days his men had clashed with guerrillas only when they launched mopping up operations.

In the lower slopes of the mountains spring has arrived. In the wrecked villages apple trees are covered with white blossom. The first light green leaves are appearing on the trees and are beginning to give the rebels cover from artillery observers and air attacks.

During the last Chechen war in 1994-96 it was in spring that the guerrillas began their counter-attack. Shamil Basay-ev, the rebel leader whose foot was blown off by a mine in a retreat from Grozny, has even given a date for the counter-offensive, saying it will begin on 15 April.

It may not be so easy. The officers at Itum-Kalye, who say they have 2,000 men in their garrison and are building a camp to hold 1,000 more, do not believe the guerrillas can penetrate Russian defences.

Pointing to his massive self-propelled 155mm guns, Major Vinogradov said: "We are very accurate. The rebels give a reward of $500 to $1,000 to anybody who kills an artilleryman, so we do not wear our epaulettes which identify who we are."

This is probably fantasy. There is no evidence that Chechen fighters get any rewards for dead Russians. But there is no doubt, according to guerrillas who have fled to neighbouring Ingushetia and Georgia, that Russian firepower has inflicted heavy casualties in the past two months.

At the same time the Russian army, for all its immensesuperiority, has not succeeded in wiping out the guerrillas. Instead it has suffered heavy losses in several ambushes. In recent weeks rebels have killed 85 paratroops and 43 special forces troops.

Major Vinogradov said he did not know about these ambushes. "Nothing like that has happened in our division, thank God," he said.

Despite occupying a position in the heart of Chechnya it is clear that the officers commanding the Russian base at Itum-Kalye have little contact with ordinary Chechens and still less with Chechen fighters.

"We only see them when we go on mopping up operations and then they flee into the mountains where we can't catch them," said one officer, who did not want his namepublished.

But he spoke of the war as being a necessary campaign against a great Islamic conspiracy to subvert all the republics of the Caucasus and threaten southern Russia.

Comments