Russians try new tactics to flush out Chechen fighters

Phil Reeves finds a group of separatists in Chechnya optimistic at the prospect of a new onslaught
It is growing dark and we are in a red-brick building which could easily be mistaken for an English parish hall, were it not in a Chechen village in the middle of a war zone.

To its occupants, a group of separatist fighters, it is headquarters, a place to plan nocturnal raids on the marauding Russian army. To the Russians, it is a pocket of resistance, one of those targets which they are under orders to destroy.

But to me, a journalist seeking interviews, it seems more like a local social club, a version of the British Legion in the Caucasus. In the kitchen, two women are peeling onions and boiling water for tea. On the bashed- in sofas and armchairs around the room sit a handful of men, some in fighter's clothes, others in mufti. Every generation is represented here, from a pale boy in fatigues who looks far too young to kill, to a grizzled one- eyed veteran, who looks far too old to do so.

One of the Chechens tells us that the Russian army is less than 10 miles away; we can hear occasional artillery fire and exchanges of machine-gun fire. Two or three fighters, mere youths, lounge around and smoke on the balcony, apparently keeping watch, with their rifles nearby. There is probably no need. The rebels have many supporters out there amid the apple orchards and the muddy lanes, law-abiding residents who would none the less alert them if the Russians arrived.

The leader, Doku Makhayev, a lean man with a dense black beard, is sitting on a bed in the corner, under a wall decorated with posters of the guerrilla leaders Dzhokhar Dudayev and Shamil Basayev and a Chechen flag. He is in uniform, and carries a knife with a fox's-foot handle in his breast pocket, a pistol at his hip, and the TV channel controller in his hand.

Before the war, he was a construction worker. Now, at 41, though a father of five, he is a full-time fighter: regimental and deputy chief commander of the south-western sector, known as Sector Number One. He has 11 villages on his patch, including this one.

For him, these are particularly troubled times. The Russians have launched an offensive in which they are trying to flush out Mr Dudayev's forces from the villages by persuading elders to sign agreements, promising to expel the fighters from their midst. Those that refuse to do so risk joining the lengthening list of settlements which the Russians have been - and, in some cases, this week, still were - bombarding.

"In this village, people are not going to sign," said Mr Makhayev. "There are certain circles who are willing, but they wouldn't dare." His men were therefore stockpiling weapons, and preparing their defences in readiness for a Russian onslaught.

Last month, he said, the separatists held a series of rallies in nearby villages, explaining how worthless they thought the agreements were. They might as well be "death warrants", he said. Just look at the fate of Novogroznensky, a village which - according to several reports - had signed an agreement, but was still shelled.

The strategy of the Russians and the Moscow-backed government of Doku Zavgayev (who claims 77 villages have now signed) is to try to drive a wedge through Chechen communities, causing peaceful residents to turn against the local fighters whose presence could lead to their doom. It is, however, easy for the rebels to shrug off responsibility for any bloodshed; they can blame the Russians.

They also tend to argue that death is a matter determined only by Allah - no matter how many Russian shells shower down from the heavens. And the Kremlin has almost certainly failed to understand the complexity and depth of the relations which knit together peaceable Chechens with the "boyeviki", the fighters.

Talking to Mr Makhayev, one is inclined to dismiss him as a boaster, a braggart lacking any clout. This evaporates when he suddenly turns up the TV set, now showing a prestigious Russian current affairs programme. He explains that he arrested one of its journalists, for editing pictures of corpses into a recorded interview with Dudayev. He only let his captive go after the programme agreed to apologise; now he wanted to see if it would keep the promise. It did. "Excellent," he said, quietly.

It was a small triumph. Mr Makhayev dreams of bigger victories: winning the right for a referendum on independence and the departure of the Russians. He insists that there would be no massive reprisals, and denies President Yeltsin's claim that an all-out withdrawal would lead to civil war.

"The Muslim courts will deal with 10 or 15 traitors who invited the Russian troops here, but we will find a common language. We are all Chechens, and all of the same blood." What of the hundreds of Chechens, the local Ministry of Interior police, who fought against them in Grozny? "We will forgive them."

For now, this is fantasy. He must focus on the war. He says Mr Dudayev's forces, in absolute disarray last summer, are now stronger and more numerous. "We have arms, we have transport, our people are well rested, and our wounded guys are being taken care of." They are planning another spectacular assault, "a blockbuster movie", he says.

And, sitting in their village headquarters, he and his men are looking forward to the summer. "Allah helps us by sending fog at night. There will be green leaves on the trees soon, and they will screen our manoeuvres." What no one in that building knows, is whether they will live to see the summer, when it comes.