Splits with extremists hit morale in Grozny

Demoralisation spreads among 1,200 Chechen fighters left in besieged capital as conflict boosts Putin's presidential campaign

Divisions with Islamic extremists and fears that the Russian army will use chemical weapons have demoralised the guerrillas besieged in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

Divisions with Islamic extremists and fears that the Russian army will use chemical weapons have demoralised the guerrillas besieged in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

Rustam Kaliev, an experienced Chechen journalist, met the rebels - whose numbers have fallen to about 1,200 men - before he escaped from the city early yesterday morning by crawling through a tunnel under a railway embankment, on top of which were Russian troops.

Mr Kaliev says that people in Grozny express hatred towards Shamil Basayev, the Chechen military commander allied to the Islamic extremists known as Wahhabis, who left the city last week. They blame him for providing Moscow with a pretext for launching the war, now in its third month, by invading the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan in August.

Refugees confirm reports of deep popular anger against the Wahhabis, of whom the most famous leader is Khatab, a Saudi Arabian, who first appeared in Chechnya in 1995. They have never had widespread support but have significant financial resources, apparently sent from abroad, and they are heavily armed. Their Arabic version of Islam is very different from the traditional beliefs of the Chechens.

Mr Kaliev, who spoke to many guerrillas and local leaders in Grozny, said they expressed as much hatred towards the extremists as they did towards the Russians. He said: "They blame the Wahhabis for abandoning Urus-Martan [a strategically vital town south of the capital] without a fight."

There were reports of skirmishing between the Federation's army and guerrillas on the outskirts of Grozny yesterday, but for the most part the battle lines of the two sides are about a mile apart.

A 12-man Russian reconnaissance unit did penetrate at the weekend to Minutka Square, a strategic point slightly higher than the rest of the city, but it was decimated, with seven or eight men killed. Chechen fighters said a report that federal losses were much higher was exaggerated.

The army said yesterday that its troops had cleared the guerrillas from Shali, the last town held by Chechen fighters on the plains and located about nine miles south-east of Grozny.

Other guerrillas have retreated into the mountains. So far, military casualties on both sides have been limited because the Russian Federation has relied on its superior fire power and has made few ground attacks.

Mr Kaliev said there was a pervasive fear in Grozny that it would be the target of chemical weapons. Guerrillas fled their trenches in one sector of the front last week when a cloud of toxic gas, which may have escaped from an industrial plant hit by a shell, killed six civilians. Troops immediately occupied their positions.

The Russian army has admitted issuing to its soldiers medical antidotes to chemical weapons, claiming that the latter might be used by the guerrillas.

From the beginning of the war, the Chechens hoped that Russian military units would take heavy losses by becoming involved in street fighting in the capital, but they have become dispirited by Moscow's reliance on relentless air and artillery attack. The federal army denied yesterday that it was pressing home ground attacks on Grozny.

The number of fighters in the city has sunk to about 1,200, far lower than previous estimates, according to Mr Kaliev, an experienced military observer. He said many left at the start of the month, just before federal forces completed their encirclement of the city. Some had headed for the mountains to start guerrilla war, while others had gone to their home villages in the Russian-occupied zone.

Mr Kaliev's own escape was dramatic. With two friends, he walked for four hours through the night protected by thick fog. Knowing they would have to crawl through the freezing mud to get past Russian sentries, they had covered themselves with plastic sacking. They were afraid that this might crackle as they moved so they wore another layer of clothes over the plastic.

"I have never been so frightened in my life," Mr Kaliev said. "Chechen and Russian snipers were firing at each other across no-man's land and both were likely to target us." Finally, he and his friends were able to make their way to a village still not occupied by the Russians.

Few of the civilians still in Grozny are leaving through the safety corridors promised by Moscow. The men are frightened that they will be arrested as rebels at the first checkpoint and many have no documents after years of war and hostile relations between Chechnya and Russia. Mr Kaliev said: "I visited cellars where people were hiding and there were the same people in them as when I last saw them a month ago."

Surprisingly, Chechens are optimistic about the prospect of at least a partial Russian withdrawal next year, calculating that the invasion is part of the electoral campaign of the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to succeed Boris Yeltsin in the forthcoming presidential election.

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