Heavy fighting raged in the Caucasian region of Chechnya yesterday as Chechens, some armed with rockets but many more carrying nothing heavier than hunting rifles, fought desperately to defend their capital, Grozny, from Russian troops sent by th e Kremlin to crush their separatist rebellion.
Veteran reporters said the fighting, in which the Russians used attack helicopters, vividly recalled scenes from the Soviet Union's disastrous war in Afghanistan.
Peace talks continued in the neighbouring republic of North Ossetia, but the ferocity of the fighting made it unlikely that a quick solution could be achieved at the negotiating table.
The Russians, who entered Chechnya on Sunday, declared that their aim yesterday was to blockade Grozny, a city of 400,000, to put pressure on the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev. "We can talk about a blockade of Grozny but not about being dragged into street fighting," Leonid Smeryagin, an adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, said blithely in the morning.
But the Chechens, who say they are fighting a Muslim jihad or holy war against Moscow, were not going to allow the Russians to strangle their capital so easily and they put up particularly fierce resistance in the village of Pervomaiskaya, nine miles northwest of Grozny.
Chechen guerrillas reportedly fired rockets at Russian positions on a hillside overlooking the village, provoking the invading army to strafe Pervomaiskaya with machine gun fire and rockets from helicopter gunships, destroying several houses.
Further to the west, another battle raged in the village of Shammi-Yurt. Russian bombers also attacked Khankala airport just outside Grozny, control of which would allow Moscow to fly in more troops.
But the Chechens were not about to give it up. "We can thank Allah for the Russians' stupidity," one fighter was quoted as saying.
"They can come here with as many weapons as they like but we have our backs to the wall. We can't lose.
Either we win or we die and go to heaven. All we need is Allah and a couple of machine guns."
This was precisely the fighting spirit which experts on the Caucasus warned President Boris Yeltsin he could expect if he sent troops to Chechnya. But Mr Yeltsin, who managed to turn a blind eye to Grozny's unilateral independence declaration for three years, suddenly decided Russian rule had to be restored after the Chechens embarrassed Moscow by capturing some Russian servicemen involved in a covert operation to overthrow General Dudayev.
Moscow accuses the rebel general of harbouring criminals and terrorists.
President Yeltsin's military operation to "enforce the Russian constitution" ran into trouble as soon as it began. Yesterday tanks were limping into Chechnya which should have arrived there on Sunday had it not been for resistance put up by the Chechens'sympathetic neighbours, the Ingushis and the Dagestanis. And Moscow has admitted that at least nine of its men were killed in the first clashes inside Chechnya on Monday.
Eyewitnesses say the Russian tank crews look bewildered because they are not being warmly received by the local population, just as young Soviet soldiers could not understand why the Hungarians were not welcoming them in 1956 and the Czechoslovaks in 1968. As a result, the troops are jumpy.
Yesterday they fired at a car full of journalists on a road leading into Chechnya, riddling the vehicle with bullets but fortunately harming nobody.Problems also appear to be developing for Mr Yeltsin in Moscow. Yesterday the State Duma passed a resolution describing his attempts to solve the Chechen crisis as "unsatisfactory". Deputies from right across the political spectrum voted for the censure motion.
"We are moving towards confrontation between a large number of deputies on one side and the executive branch of power on the other," said a presidential adviser, Emil Pain.
"The consequences may be really grave, namely another round of conflict which threatens to result in the disintegration of Russia."
After defeating an armed uprising by deputies of the old Soviet parliament in October 1993, Mr Yeltsin made sure the new assembly would have limited powers.
Nevertheless he cannot afford entirely to alienate the Duma, which is tapping into a palpable anti-war mood among the public. If he does so, he risks becoming isolated with only the military hawks for his friends.
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