War In Chechnya: Chemical weapons fear haunts Chechens

Demoralisation spreads among 1,200 rebel fighters left in besieged capital as conflict boosts Putin's presidential campaign
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The Independent Online
CHECHEN FIGHTERS in Grozny fear Russian troops will use chemical weapons when they finally attack the city.

Rustam Kaliev, a Chechen journalist escaped Grozny early yesterday by crawling through a tunnel under a railway embankment where Russian troops stood. He said there was a pervasive fear among rebel fighters, and in the Chechen capital, that Grozny will be the target of chemical weapons.

Guerrillas fled their trenches in one sector of the front last week when a cloud of toxic gas, which may have escaped from an industrial plant hit by a shell, killed six civilians. Russian troops immediately occupied their positions.

The Russian army has admitted issuing to its soldiers medical antidotes to chemical weapons, claiming that they might be used by the guerrillas.

Mr Kaliev, who spoke to many guerrillas and local leaders in Grozny, said they expressed as much hatred towards the Wahhabis, an Islamic extremist group, as they did towards the Russians.

From the beginning of the war the Chechens hoped that the Russian military units would take heavy losses by becoming involved in street fighting in Grozny, but they have become dispirited by the Russian reliance on relentless air and artillery attack.

The Russian army denied yesterday that it was pressing home ground attacks on the Chechen capital. A Russian general said that Moscow's forces had completed operations to clear Chechen rebels from the town of Shali, the last lowland town, apart from the capital Grozny, to remain in guerrilla hands.

Fighting was centred on the eastern edge of the city, in areas around the city airport. Russian commanders said units of commandos had moved into the capital's outskirts.

Chechen commanders said their forces were holding out in bunkers and rebel forces were seen firing rockets and machine guns at Russian troops.

Last night the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, offered the Russians peace talks on the proviso they were monitored by Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe but Moscow gave no sign it was about to accept.

Mr Kaliev, an experienced military observer, said the number of Chechen fighters in the city had sunk to about 1,200, far lower than previous estimates. Many left at the start of the month, just before Russian forces completed their encirclement of the city. Some headed for the mountains to start guerrilla war, while others had gone to their home villages in the Russian-occupied zone.

Mr Kaliev's escape was dramatic. With two friends he walked for four hours through the night protected by fog. Knowing that they would have to crawl through freezing mud to get past Russian sentries, they covered themselves with plastic sacking. They were afraid this might make a crackling sound as they moved, so they wore another layer of clothes over the plastic. "I have never been so frightened in my life," said Mr Kaliev. "Chechen and Russian snipers were firing at each other across no man's land and both were likely to target us." Finally, he and his friends were able to make their way to a Chechen village not occupied by the Russians.

Surprisingly, Chechens are optimistic about the prospect of at least a partial Russian withdrawal next year, calculating that the invasion is part of the electoral campaign of Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, to succeed President Boris Yeltsin next year.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency said that Chechen President, Mr Maskhadov, was ready to sit down with Russian officials and the head of the OSCE to discuss a ceasefire. It said Mr Maskhadov had outlined his offer by telephone from Chechnya and he wanted Knut Vollebaek, head of the OSCE, to join the talks. Mr Vollebaek, who is Norway's foreign minister, was on a tour of regions near Chechnya and was due to go to Russian-held parts of the province today.

Tass said: "Aslan Maskhadov told Itar-Tass by telephone he was ready to have a meeting with Moscow representatives with the participation of OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek. He intends ... to discuss questions concerning a ceasefire and the search for a peaceful settlement of the conflict." Moscow has rejected all his previous offers. It has also rejected mediation by the OSCE.

The Russian Emergencies Minister, Sergei Shoigu, said he was ready for talks with Mr Maskhadov, although he wanted to discuss only the evacuation of civilians from Grozny and not political matters. Mr Maskhadov had pledged to guarantee the safety of Russian officials at any talks on territory held by Chechen fighters, and had also offered to go to territory under the control of Russian forces if they guaranteed his security, Tass said.

Mr Maskhadov is seen as one of the more moderate separatist leaders, but Mr Putin said Moscow would consider him an unworthy negotiator if he was unwilling, or unable, to control Chechen radicals. Mr Putin also said he had repeatedly refused to meet Russian demands to release hostages and hand over radical warlords.