Rebel lord of Grozny revels in his triumph

The master of Grozny, Shamil Basayev, was sitting in a spartan room in a cellar in the city centre, nursing a wounded foot.

Though in pain, he seemed at ease and very much in control. Notorious for his raid on Budyonnovsk last year, when his band of fighters seized more than 1,000 hostages in the town hospital, Mr Basayev, 31, has established himself as one of the most accomplished guerrilla leaders in the world.

Ten days ago, he led 1,500 men in an audacious three-pronged attack on the garrison town of Grozny, reaching the centre within half an hour.

Since then the Chechen rebels have surrounded thousands of Russian troops in their command posts all over the city.

"[The Russians] can take the city back. It would take half a year and they would have to destroy the town. They can take it even in a month, but it would cost them 10,000 to 15,000 men," he said.

Mr Basayev, who commanded the defence of Grozny in the first three months of the 20-month-old war, has presented Moscow with a big challenge.

"The aim [of the operation] was to take the town and fight the Russian forces at close quarters," he said.

His fighters undoubtedly control most of Grozny, driving around in captured government Volga cars and police jeeps. Every district has its own headquarters with a top commander in charge.

Every approach to the Russian positions is manned by fighters, recognisable by their camouflage uniforms and berets with green Islamic headbands. The green flag of the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, with its distinctive white-red-white bands, is sewn on their uniforms or berets.

They were polite, especially to a journalist from Britain, which retains a good reputation in Chechnya from pre-revolutionary times. Any suspicion they showed was instantly dispelled by a pass bearing Mr Basayev's personal red stamp, with its emblem of the lone wolf.

Mr Basayev is a hero in Chechnya and commands the unswerving loyalty of his fighters. He sat calmly in his cellar, just off the central market, dressed in a blue-and-white-striped Russian army T-shirt, his head shaved bald, showing a deep scar on his forehead from a motorcycle accident when he was a boy. Flies landed on his foot. Blood was still seeping through a bandage. A matching gun bullet broke a bone and struck a vein when he was hit two days ago, he said.

"For me it is minor, a trifle," he said. He could run if it was essential. Meanwhile he was on crutches, he said, pointing to a pair in the corner.

Russian forces launched another attempt to break through to the city's stadium from the east on Wednesday, he said, but his fighters had held them off.

Russian infantry unsuccessfully launched another push on Thursday morning. Mr Basayev's deputy for the operation in Grozny, Aslanbek Ismailov, who also was his second-in-command at Budyonnovsk, was in charge of the latest fighting.

He said he was not interested in attacking the small Russian posts dotted around the town and on the main bridges. The Chechen side had even prepared leaflets to hand out to the Russians, suggesting they surrender. Fighters would run up to deliver them after shouting to them to hold fire, he said.

The Russian soldiers did not want to fight, Mr Basayev said, and were reluctant to leave their bases to storm the town again. Mr Basayev said the rebels' patience had run out after Moscow went back on its word to end the war peacefully when it launched bombing raids in the mountains in July.

Asked if his humiliation of Russia would bring better results than peace talks, he said: "Do you not think Russia humiliated us for 300 years? It cannot even feed its own people, that is its humiliation. It should pay its hungry miners rather than spend money on this war. Soldiers were eating dogs from the streets here in January, they were so hungry," he said.

"The mortars are landing on our land, killing our people, and ruining our mountains and villages," he said.

Despite obvious tiredness and faintly shaking hands, Mr Basayev brightened when he described his fighters' success. They had captured several tanks and armoured personnel carriers, positioning them on the edge of the market to use against attacking helicopters and planes. The Russians now feared to fly close, he said.

He claimed he had personally shot down two planes with a machine gun in the battle for the town. He had lost only 35 men, with 80 wounded, few of them seriously. His estimates of Russian casualties ranged from 2,000 to 3,000, with over 200 armoured vehicles destroyed.

He was sceptical about Alexander Lebed's efforts to end the conflict. "I do not believe a single Russian man. The Russians are not people who keep their word," he said. "But there is a hope that we can do something to resolve our fate."