As Russia stepped up its military campaign yesterday, its forces pounded the west of Grozny in what soldiers described as the fiercest shelling yet of the Chechen capital. Artillery crews said it was the first time in the eight-week offensive that they had been ordered to hit Grozny with such force.
A source at the Russian military headquarters in Mozdok told the Interfax agency that the high command planned "to use more powerful, cutting edge weapons and equipment against Chechen rebels."
He did not identify the weapon by name, but said it was a type of incendiary bomb, which had to be carried by aircraft heavier than any used in Chechnya since the start of the war. The bombs would be dropped only in mountainous and deserted territory where guerrillas had built strongholds and ammunition dumps. They would not be used "in the plains or near settlements".
The description makes it likely that the Russian air force intends to use "vacuum" bombs which it deployed during the last war in Chechnya in 1994-96 when they were dropped during the battle for Samashki, a village close to the border. The pressure from the explosion of the bomb can collapsed lungs of people hiding in bunkers thus killing them.
The Russian army has so far been fighting in low hills north of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and in the heavily populated Chechen plain. It has tried to keep its casualties low by advancing behind a heavy artillery and aerial bombardment. These tactics will be more difficult to pursue as the army advances into the Caucasus mountains in southern Chechnya, which may explain the deployment of the new bomb.
The air force also says it is preparing to deploy a new generation of Ka-50 "Black Shark" helicopters suitable for use in the mountains. Since the start of the fighting in Dagestan in August, air force officers say they have lost five helicopters destroyed and 147 damaged, mostly by small arms fire and heavy machine guns.
Despite poor weather conditions yesterday which limited air strikes, Russian long range artillery continued to bombard the Chechen town of Urus-Martan, said to be held by 3,500 guerrillas.
The Russian high command continues to exude confidence saying they were about to take the Chechen town of Argun and that several guerrilla commanders had come over to their side.
In a further sign that the attention of the Russian military is turning to its forthcoming campaign in the Caucasus, intelligence sources said that 30 per cent of the Chechen guerrillas with their equipment had moved into the mountains.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, the health of President Boris Yeltsin has once more broken down, forcing him to leave his desk for two weeks, though aides said it was only a cold.