Chechen Escape Bid Foiled

Federal forces thwart a daring Chechen bid to evacuate a wounded commander.

Chechen Escape Bid Foiled

Federal forces thwart a daring Chechen bid to evacuate a wounded commander.

An attempt by Chechen rebel leaders to escape into neighbouring Georgia has reportedly been foiled by Russian paratrooper supported by devastating fire from Mi-24 helicopter gunships.

Federal military sources claim that the clash was part of a bid to evacuate wounded warlord Shamil Basaev from the embattled republic. Basaev who had his right foot amputated after the retreat from Grozny is now thought to be suffering from gangrene. Other reports state that a shrapnel wound to the head has permanently damaged his eyesight.

In a bid to secure a safe passage for Basaev, around 300 rebels commanded by Emir Khattab are said to have attacked a border-guard unit near the village of Omi-chu, 10 kilometres from the Georgian frontier. The separatists raked federal positions with heavy-machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.

The border-guards promptly radioed in reinforcements and Mi-24 helicopters dropped 600 elite paratroopers near the settlement. At least one gunship was shot down during the operation and a Mi-8 transport helicopter badly damaged but the Russians claim to have killed 80 rebel fighters in the ensuing firefight.

According to Russian intelligence sources, separatists now hope to smuggle Basaev from the village of Roshni-Chu into Ingushetia where a Tu-134 belonging to Chechen-owned Askhab airlines is waiting for him at Magas airfield.

Moscow is also trying hard to write Khattab out of the picture - probably prematurely. On February 21, the federal press centre quoted the Jordanian-born Wahhabi militant as saying that Allah had come to him in a dream and "ordered his warriors to return home". It is thought Khattab's lieutenant, Arbi Baraev, is preparing a secure base for the remnants of the feared Islamic Regiment in the Akhmet region of Georgia.

The Chechen high command has denied these reports, claiming that Khattab is busy planning guerrilla raids on Russian garrisons at Starie Atagi, Shali and Serzhen-Yurt.

But the Russian generals have never been slow to report the deaths of Chechen rebel soldiers. On Tuesday, the federal press centre announced that Interior Ministry troops had discovered the body of Salman Raduev, 32, one of Chechnya's great military legends.

Raduev was leader of the elite Presidential Berets before taking command of Dzhokhar Dudaev's army between April 1996 and June 1997. He led the notorious hostage-taking expedition to Kizlyar in January 1996, then miraculously escaped capture during the ensuing debacle with elite Alpha commandos at Pervomaiskoe.

Russia's Federal Security Service believes that Raduev was killed by his own men as the result of a blood feud. There have been five attempts on his life over the past three years, one resulting in a serious head wound.

Meanwhile, the Russian generals unleashed a fresh wave of bombing raids against Shatoy, in the Argun Gorge, which they say is the last bastion of rebel resistance in Southern Chechnya. The offensive is being orchestrated by General Mukhriddin Ashurov, an expert in mountain fighting, who succeeded in seizing the key position of Duba-Yurt on Saturday.

Over 150 airstrikes were launched against Shatoy on Tuesday, with 13 ground-to-ground rockets ripping through the town centre. This was followed by severe fighting around Khal-Kela on Thursday, when rebel positions were hit by Igla ("Needle") and Strela ("Arrow") rocket systems.

The separatists claim to have shot down five helicopter gunships in the Argun Gorge over the past five days, with 40 Russian Special Forces troops killed in Khal-Kela alone.

On Thursday, Moscow reacted angrily to reports from a Spanish news agency that 33 Russian soldiers had been killed by friendly fire in the Argun Gorge. An EFE correspondent claimed that a federal armoured column had mistakenly been hit by Uragan rockets on the night of February 22. Both Russian and Chechen sources report that the armoured personnel carriers were in fact ambushed by rebel fighters.

Alexander Voronin is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets.

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