Russians hit Grozny from all sides

Click to follow

By Helen Womack in Moscow

By Helen Womack in Moscow

26 December 1999

RUSSIAN FORCES met fierce resistance from Chechen rebels as they launched a ground attack on Grozny from all sides yesterday, after weeks of long-range air and artillery strikes.

Plumes of black and grey smoke rose over the devastated city as buildings burned out of control and explosions rocked the ground. Chechen fighters mounted guerrilla attacks against the Russians, and fighting broke out at several points on the city's outskirts.

The advance, which aimed to "liberate" the capital of Chechnya from "terrorists", began 20 years to the day after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Yesterday, as on 25 December 1979, the Kremlin must have reckoned that the West would be too busy celebrating Christmas to pay much attention.

According to Russia's independent NTV channel, the attack was led by some 500 members of a new pro-Moscow Chechen militia, headed by the freed convict, Beslan Gantimirev. Russian Interior Ministry troops, backed by the air force, were following, while army units maintained the tight blockade around the city.

The Russians also used another trick from their military history. In the Second World War, Stalin released common criminals and political prisoners from labour camps to fight at the front, where most died but a few beat the odds to win freedom. Mr Gantimirev, formerly the mayor of Grozny, was recently released from prison in Moscow, where he was serving a sentence for embezzlement, in order to help "liberate" his home region. He stands to gain an important position in whatever government Moscow imposes on Chechnya in the future - if he survives.

Up to 50,000 civilians were still trapped in Grozny, vulnerable to both the Russian guns and up to 5,000 Chechen fighters. The Russians insisted that they were not "storming" Grozny but "cleaning" it, with the aim of recovering full control of their own "rightful territory", and confidently predicted that they would complete the operation by their main winter holiday of New Year. But even pro-Moscow Chechens warned that victory was months away, while members of the resistance said they would never give in.