Chechen missiles bring down two Russian jets

Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday 05 October 1999 23:00 BST

CHECHEN FIGHTERS using ground-to-air missiles have shot down two Russian fighter-bombers in a serious blow to Russia's strategy of relying on air power in the renewed war in Chechnya.

CHECHEN FIGHTERS using ground-to-air missiles have shot down two Russian fighter-bombers in a serious blow to Russia's strategy of relying on air power in the renewed war in Chechnya.

The aircraft - a SU-25 ground attack plane and a SU-24 bomber - were destroyed on Sunday and Monday. The Russian air force said the pilot of the first plane was rescued. The other pilot is believed to have died when his plane crashed.

Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, said one of the planes was brought down by an American-made Stinger missile. If the Chechens have acquired a supply of these weapons they are in a position to prevent Russia limiting its own casualties by waging the sort of air war that Nato fought in Kosovo earlier in the year.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, said the Russian forces had taken a third of Chechen territory. He told political leaders that four Russian soldiers had been killed and 22 wounded in fighting so far. "The operation is not yet over," Mr Putin said in Moscow. "The ultimate aim is to eliminate the terrorists and their bases in Chechnya." He said the government did not intend to use force to tackle political problems but would settle them by negotiation.

Despite Mr Putin's claim that Russian forces are advancing, what is becoming clear is that the Chechens have not yet begun to fight. Instead they are leaving behind groups of five to 10 men to cover their retreat while units of 100 to 150 lay mines and dig trenches further south.

Heavily armoured Russian formations are advancing across the flat steppe and some have reached the River Terek. Military sources in the Chechen capital, Grozny, say Russian units have captured a bridge 15 miles north of the city. Kazbek Makhashev, the Chechen Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday: "Chechen armed forces have not entered battle as of 5 October and are awaiting orders from Aslan Maskhadov."

Where the Chechens obtained Stinger missiles or how many they possess is not clear. The missiles' effectiveness in destroying one of the planes is shown by the fact that fewer than six Russian air force planes were shot down during the entire 1994-96 war.

The Russian Federal Security Service said yesterday it did not exclude the possibility that Shamil Basayev, the Chechen field commander who led the attack on Dagestan last month, has obtained Stingers from the Taliban in Afghanistan.Another possibility, however, is that the Chechens have bought Russian Igla surface-to-air missiles from the Russian forces. These are similar to the Stinger. During the previous war in Chechnya much of the Chechen military arsenal was bought from corrupt Russian soldiers.

As the bombardment of Chechnya continues, 118,000 refugees have fled, according to the Emergency Situation Ministry in Moscow. Almost all of them have sought refuge in Ingushetia to the east.

Mr Putin and the Russian government are still sounding confident, 10 days after the beginning of the renewed bombardment of Chechnya. They have greater public support than in 1994-96 because of several bomb attacks on civilian apartment buildings in Moscow, which have killed 300 people. The Russians have also suffered few military casualties. But the Chechen armed forces have not yet started to counter-attack in earnest and the loss of two aircraft is the first sign that Russia is beginning to encounter difficulties.

On the streets of Moscow, Russians agree that the government must crush Islamic militants in Chechnya, but many fear the current fighting could be a repeat of the 1994-96 conflict. "I don't see anything good in the current situation," said Fyodor Butelsky, a businessman aged 25. "To bring troops to Chechnya now will lead to a long bloody war with massive losses once again."

Marina Sidorova, a nurse aged 57, said: "We've got to find a different way to solve this question. We're throwing money away killing our own boys and peaceful Chechens."

Still, there is almost unanimous agreement that the government had to counter the recent actions by the militants. "I totally agree with what our government is doing in Chechnya," said 70-year-old Yevgeny, a retired choreographer who refused to give his last name. "These are bandits who come into Moscow and blow people up when they're sleeping peacefully at night. They must be destroyed."

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