Yeltsin's 'victory in a day' turns into a savage struggle as Chechens defy the might of Russia

Phil Reeves reports from near Pervomayskoye on the 'rescue' that could kill 100 hostages
Click to follow
The morning had been as still, cold and grey as a gravestone. Then, at 9am sharp, the onslaught began. Huge thuds and crashes rolled across the frozen landscape of northern Dagestan and echoed around the foothills of neighbouring Chechnya. The shadow-boxing and posturing were over: Russia's military machine was moving in.

Six helicopter gunships circled the village of Pervomayskoye, blasting it with rockets as they reeled against the skyline like huge, malevolent insects. Flares came tumbling out of them, decoys against heat-seeking missiles. The Russian artillery opened up, like ghastly timpani.

If this was, as claimed, a surgical operation, to free more than 100 hostages held by Salman Raduyev and his Chechen fighters, what would a frontal assault have looked and sounded like?

Shell after shell slammed into the settlement, which soon lay beneath a gauze of dust and smoke. Some came from smaller Russian guns; others from tanks - gruff hammer blows, followed by deeper thumps as the missiles landed. We could hear the whoosh of Grad missiles and rocket-propelled grenades, and the churning sound of small arms fire. At one point, a Russian tank began spewing black smoke - and then it exploded - an apparently rare triumph for Raduyev's men in this unequal and grotesque contest.

By lunchtime the heart of the village, with its scores of women and children hostages, lay behind a curtain of flame. And yet for most of the afternoon the assault continued uninterrupted. Almost every building in the village seemed to have been blasted, but we could still hear the crackle of machine guns as the Chechens fought back.

As darkness fell, with much of the village flattened by hours of bombardment, it was clear that the battle was not yet over, despite President Yeltsin's claims that the Russian army would be victorious within a day. The intensity of the fighting had subsided, although the Russians were firing occasional shells into the hamlet. Bursts of machine-gun fire could also be heard.

Rebel spokesmen in Chechnya claimed that their small force had repulsed seven attacks. But, in Moscow, an interior ministry official, Alexander Zdanovich, said: "Scattered groups of fighters who have hidden in houses are being weeded out and wiped out."

Other Russian officials said they had killed 60 rebels and freed nine of the captives. They admitted to only four Russian soldiers killed and 14 wounded. Earlier reports had told of "several" Russian troop carriers destroyed.

Despite claims to the contrary the whole operation was conducted with scant concern for human life, hostage or rebel. Not 100 yards from where we stood there were three big Russian field guns, well out of the range of the Chechens, who were armed only with assault rifles, heavy machine guns and grenade launchers.

We watched the Russian gunners lounging around, hands in pockets to avoid the bitter cold. A radio call came through from their command centre and they loaded their cannons with 122mm shells, ducked briefly, and fired. Then they lounged about again, like youths standing at a bus shelter. That they may have wiped out their fellow countrymen seemed to be a matter of spine-chilling unconcern.

"What am I going to do?" said Sulleman Makhodov, as he watched the battle from a ridge. The 60-year-old pensioner has lived in Pervomayskoye all his life. "I have a wife and four children. Where will we live? How will we live?"

His friend, another elderly refugee, chipped in, trembling with rage: "Everyone in there will have been killed in five minutes. It is a terrible, terrible thing to do." The village's houses are made of mud, brick and stones and provide flimsy cover. Few have basements.

It was hard to watch this spectacle without feeling deeply sickened. No one can sensibly justify the rebels' behaviour - first seizing a hospital in Kizlyar and taking 2,000 hostages, then exposing more than 100 captives to a likely death at the hands of an outraged Russia. Yet it was equally impossible to watch such destruction without smelling the awful whiff of political expediency.

As the battle raged in front of us, the ego of an injured and thunderously angry president appeared to be in play. Though ill and unpopular, Boris Yeltsin has shown every symptom of a man preparing to run for re-election in June. He knows he must win back the respect of a nation in which many hanker for strong and uncompromising leadership.

No effort was made to stop television cameras from recording the battle from a grandstand position in a neighbouring village. Rather it was a spectacle that the Kremlin seemed to want us - or at least their fellow Russians - to witness.