Russian scalped by Chechen fighters

The body lay on a sheet of cardboard by the road, the hands dark brown, half- clenched. A botched attempt had been made to scalp the corpse, the skin hanging in a flap to one side. The road led west, out of Grozny, and behind it the sign said so: Grozny,in Cyrillic, crossed by a diagonal, blood-red line.

The Chechens bury their own and this body had probably been placed there as a warning to the Russians if they ever got this far. He was wearing uniform and may have been a member of the Russian special forces, attempting to infiltrate the defence. We would never know.

At Samashki, a village 20 km west of Grozny, a Russian armoured personnel carrier was burning.

It was 2pm; it had been hit maybe an hour before. The Russians - nine of them - had been drunk, and harassing a woman who had been selling vodka and provisions at a roadside stall, the Chechen fighters said.

So they took an anti-tank grenade launcher to the armoured vehicle. Seven Russians were killed: two were prisoners, said the Chechen fighter, clad in a camouflage jacket, a shaggy fur hat, who claimed to have fired the fatal shot. The vehicle belonged tothe Russian army, not the better disciplined Interior Ministry troops, who manned the one road-block on this route into Grozny, just down the road.

Villagers were still crowding round, which was hazardous, as there was probably ammunition still inside. A few yards away they were already digging a grave. Any minute, they reckoned, the Russians would be here, maybe with helicopters, to recover their men and maybe wreak revenge.

A Chechen officer was scanning the horizon, far away across the endlessly flat fields, with old binoculars. "Don't worry. That's a tractor," he said.

Farther on, the Russians at the road-block were understandably jumpy, now on full alert, in grey-and-white camouflage and helmets with white snow-covers. They stopped and searched the car, and demanded our documents. Four Hind helicopter gunships flew overhead, very low. The documents were in order, and they politely let us go.

Grozny itself was subjected to a barrage of unprecedented intensity yesterday. All through the day artillery shells slammed into the city centre and well to the south-west, into areas previously considered relatively safe. As the weather cleared Russian planes continually screamed in to drop bombs.

Approaching the Minutka roundabout, artillery shells were whooshing across the road in front of the car, and I stopped to speak to four Chechen fighters. They beckoned me into the cellar of one of the houses, where a smoky wood fire was burning. They said they had captured the railway station, which had been the Russians' most secure point near the city centre and was close by. Shakhid was their leader. "We have taken the railway station. It's our railway station. We don't fight for [Chechen President D zhokhar] Dudayev - we fight for ourselves, our land," he said, as artillery shells whistled and exploded near by - so close one could feel the shock.

"We don't blame the Russian soldiers. The city is littered with their dead bodies. It's the government - boss classes - who are to blame. This is being done by Yeltsin - the `democrat'. We will fight to the end. This guy's house has been destroyed. He's got nothing much to live for. He'll fight to the end."

On the way there, there had been a yellow sign by the road, with a slogan in Russian: "Better to die than to live on our knees. Allahu akbar." Farther west, Russian planes were swooping low over a housing estate, Okruzhnaya, which had been hit on Monday.Seven people had been killed, the residents said.

"They bomb by night rarely. Mainly by day," said Ramazan, one of the residents on the estate which housed factory workers. "They're trying to scare us. Here there are many nationalities - he's Russian, he's Armenian, I'm Chechen. We all live here together. The water supply has been cut. We have to fetch water and they strafe us."

He pointed to the low clouds as a Frogfoot fighter, just visible, swept overhead. It's silvery gleam was like a space-age apparition above the smashed red-brick apartments where people carried water in buckets. Artillery shells were still landing. "My brother lives on the other side of town. I haven't seen him for more than a month."

Fedora Marashuk, 90, stood in the snow, wrapped in an old tweed coat. She began to cry. "What do you think of Yeltsin?," I asked.

"Punish him," she said.