Refugees flee as battle rages in Grozny

Carlotta Gall witnessed the suffering of those desperately trying to flee fierce bombardment by Russian jets

Hundreds of refugees poured out of Grozny yesterday, the sounds of fierce battles behind them, crossing fresh volunteer fighters who were moving in to join the battle for the city. The refugees came on foot or crammed in Russian Zhiguli cars and open trucks, through the woods, as sounds of heavy air strikes and artillery echoed in the southern suburbs of the city. Half the sky overhead was black from smoke drifting from the oil refinery burning on the western side of the city.

The Chechen fighters guarding the wooded trail, which seems to be the only way in and out of the city, suddenly shouted for people to take cover. The clatter of a helicopter was above them as people fled along the path, dropping their bundles, veering off into the cover of the trees. Two loud explosions burst ahead of them in the woods - rockets fired by the helicopter that had already wheeled away.

The refugees pressed on in panic. They had been walking for four or five hours from their homes in the centre of the city, where fierce fighting was raging around the main government building. "The fighters are everywhere, in every street,they completely control the city," Rosa Khazbeka said. "The helicopters are firing into the houses non-stop."

After three-and-a-half days in a cellar, with no water and no food, she and her neighbours decided to make a run for it.

With 13 children among them, they crossed beside the fresh volunteer fighters who were moving into the city. Dressed in jeans and track suits, and with cheap plimsolls on their feet, they carried Kalashnikovs bought with their own money, they said, at the beginning of the war. A few had rocket-propelled grenades, the Chechens' favourite weapon, the shoulder- held launcher slung across their backs.

They walked around the Russian posts on the approaches to the city and then trekked through the woods. One group sat under the vines in a courtyard on the outskirts of Chernorechiye, awaiting orders from their commander.

Hugging the walls of an outbuilding, they listened as a helicopter gunship blasted Chechen positions only 500m away. The next second the gunships seemed to turn on them, firing two rockets with a great roar that was followed by the grunt of a machine gun.

"Swine," one fighter muttered under his breath. He had said the same earlier, when Russian jets unleashed a series of bombs on the southern suburbs less than a kilometre away, the massive explosions echoing through the woods.

As the helicopters circled away, following their last sally, Akhmad Zakayev, commander of the south-western front and one of the Chechens' top rebel commanders, raced up the road and into the courtyard in a white Volga car, accompanied by fighters in a Russian jeep. Wearing a black headband inscribed with an Arabic prayer, he smiled and embraced several of the new volunteers.

Chechen forces completely controlled the city, he said. They had surrounded the government building and destroyed a whole Russian armoured column which had tried to break through from its base at the northern airport.

The operation in Grozny was designed to force Russia to restore the peace agreement signed in the Kremlin and in Nazran before the Russian presidential elections. "Those who violated them must be punished," he said, clearly referring to the Russian military leadership. The fighters would stay "as long as it takes", he said, by seizing ammunition from the Russians in order to replenish their own supplies.

Russian soldiers manning checkpoints on the road west of the capital had heard about the disaster of the armoured column. "We heard a column was destroyed and bearded men are now driving around town in the armoured personnel carriers that are still working," one soldier said.

A veteran of 12 months' fighting in Chechnya, he shrugged his shoulders over the incident. "We are softening them up with artillery and then we will go in and finish off what we left [standing] last time," he said. "And we'll cut off a few ears," he added, making the Russian soldiers' most frequent grisly threat.

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