'We have decided to finish the operation'

Chechen siege: Reporters ordered away as Russian infantry withdraws before start of rocket bombardment to flatten village
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The Independent Online
PHIL REEVES

Pervomayskoye

It has become a shameful piece of domestic business that the Kremlin no longer wants the world to see. For two days we watched from the sidelines as Russian artillery pounded a village held by Chechen rebels, regardless of the probability that they also were slaughtering men, women and children being held there at gun point.

For two days we watched with disbelief as the Russian military sent in its best forces, only to have them repelled by no more than 150 lightly armed fighters. Now, as the rifle-waving soldiers gathered around us made only too clear, they wanted journalists out of the area.

We would have to move to another village, one well out of sight of the next episode in the battle of Pervomayskoye: the utter destruction of the place and all its occupants, including any hostages still alive. When governments set about killing their own, they prefer to do so away from the public's gaze.

The change in tactics was announced by Major General Alexander Mikhailov, chief spokesman of the Federal Security Service (FSB). It was clear, he announced, that the "bandits" had been killing their hostages, scores of Dagestanis unlucky enough to have been in Kizlyar last week when the Chechens stormed in and rounded them up in a hospital, later adding 37 policemen from Siberia to their number.

Moreover, he continued, the Chechens had attempted to break through Russian lines on Tuesday night, killing six soldiers and injuring 38. Front-line officers had seen the bodies of six of the Siberian policemen strung up in the village and the hostages were "practically" all dead, a claim he made no attempt to collaborate, although he blamed the rebels for killing them all. "The decision has been taken to finish the operation," he concluded.

Three nearby Grad missile launchers that had appeared overnight a few hundred yards away, their 32 rocket tubes pointing into the heart of the village, left no doubt what "finish off" meant. But the general was willing to elaborate. "There will be massive fire. You'll see." The Russians plan to level Pervomayskoye in an attempt to bring a swift end to a battle that is a moral defeat and a military humiliation, no matter what the outcome.

We woke yesterday to find scores of Russian infantrymen gaunt with exhaustion, many still bearing a red facial bruise caused by rifle recoil, plodding away from the battlefield and boarding a fleet of buses.

"We are all getting out and then we are going to fuck them with the Grads," said one.

Although they represented the elite of the Russian forces, professional troops from the Alpha anti-terrorist unit and the Ministry of Interior SOBR rapid-reaction force, they had been beaten back by the Chechens and their leader, Salman Raduyev. Now they were being withdrawn to allow the levelling to commence.

The Russians have supplied differing explanations as to why the cream of their forces was humbled so decisively, despite having their path cleared by prolonged artillery shelling. They have complained about Chechen snipers, their elaborate network of trenches and their speed and agility.

One SOBR commando described how he and his unit were within 20 metres of the mosque the Chechens were using as their headquarters. Then they realised the rebels had drawn them into a trap and were starting to surround them. "Five minutes longer and it would have been too late," he said.

Yet it is hard to believe that other factors were not also at work - an unwillingness to kill their fellow countrymen, perhaps, or a poor military command structure, or the low morale of an army which knows it is up against an enemy that is willing to die for its cause.

Last night, as darkness closed in on northern Dagestan, we waited for the " massive fire" to begin. For several hours a hush had fallen over the village, interrupted only by the occasional flood of shells, like a bad tempered neighbour repeatedly slamming a heavy door.

Yet the relief that the lull in the Russian bombardment brought was overshadowed by a strong feeling that we were looking across the fields at a hideout for condemned men. No one expects the rebels to surrender.

It was also shattered by the Russians who suddenly unleashed the Grads, five or six at a time, which made an arc across the landscape and landed with a bone-jarring thump. For the next few hours we could see them hurtling in, one after another. This was probably not the full-scale onslaught the Russians promised. That, it seems, is yet to come.

When it does, it will cap a dismal episode for President Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Barsukov, head of the FSB, who has run the operation here in Dagestan. Before resorting to full-scale military action, they had a moral obligation to use every means at their disposal, from negotiations, however unlikely to succeed, to psychological warfare to settle the matter. Every shell that lands on Pervomayskoye in the next few days will be a bloody reminder they failed to do so.

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