Chechen Fighters Retreat To The Hills

As the Russian bombardment of Grozny reaches a horrifying crescendo, vicious skirmishes are breaking out south of the capital where small Chechen units have retreated to their mountain strongholds.

Chechen Fighters Retreat To The Hills

As the Russian bombardment of Grozny reaches a horrifying crescendo, vicious skirmishes are breaking out south of the capital where small Chechen units have retreated to their mountain strongholds.

Thursday, 23 December, 1999

Although several thousand rebel fighters are believed to be still defending the capital, Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov has reportedly ordered his remaining forces to take the fighting into the hills. Here the guerillas have already built and equipped extensive bunker complexes in preparation for their stubborn last stand.


It is the kind of fighting that Russia dreads and is most likely to inflict heavy casualties on the federal forces. Already a spokesman for the Chechen high command, Mumadi Saidaev, is claiming a major victory over a Russian airborne unit in the Argun gorge.


The force of around 1,000 paratroopers landed around 5km from the Georgian border late last week. Saidaev says the Russians have now been surrounded and wiped out, with 11 soldiers surrendering to the rebel troops. Moscow is cautiously admitting an incident took place but says the Chechens were beaten back into the mountains with heavy losses.


Meanwhile, Russian artillery and warplanes have been pounding two rebel bases to the south of Grozny. The Islamic militant Khatab, a fanatical warlord born in Saudi Arabia, commands the first, located in an old pioneer camp near Nozhay-Yurt. The Chechen forces number between 300 and 400 fighters, entrenched in a network of underground bunkers.


The defences boast bomb-shelters sunk two metres into the ground as well as a field hospital and anti-aircraft gun emplacements. The breastwork is reinforced with sandbags, timber and rubble while the approaches have been cleared of possible cover.


On either side of the fortress, camouflaged enfilades scar the rocky terrain, allowing the Chechen fighters to make unseen sorties from their positions and attack the enemy from the rear.


Between 4,000 and 5,000 civilians remain in Nozhay-Yurt, predominantly the sick and elderly. They have received an ultimatum from the Russian forces but say they have nowhere to go.


A second Chechen base in the Argun gorge has also become the target of Russian missile attacks. Here around 150 rebels commanded by Daum Akhmadov have taken refuge in a labyrinth of trenches and caves bristling with heavy machine guns, Zenith surface-to-air missiles and Mukha rocket-propelled grenades. Their position, around 400 metres above sea level, offers sweeping views across the plain below.


For the past two days, the fighters have been subjected to heavy artillery bombardments from Russian batteries at the Novaya Zhizn (New Life) poultry farm, four kilometres away. More lethal still are the early morning air raids by Russian Su-25 fighter-bombers swooping down at low level from the north and discharging their payload directly into the mountainside.


The only warning is the brief appearance of the infamous 'Laboratory' spotter planes that precede the raids by a matter of minutes. At this stage in the fighting, the Russians seem unwilling to commit their Mi-25 helicopter gunships - nicknamed 'crocodiles' - which are more vulnerable to the Chechen anti-aircraft batteries.


Highly mobile Chechen units continue to man the defences of Grozny, as the Russian high command launches its most punishing bombardment to date. As yet, ground troops have limited their long-awaited assault to cautious probing manoeuvres in the suburbs.


According to front-line fighters, Russian armoured columns attempt to lure the fighters out of their emplacements by making a feint attack. But, as soon as observers manage to pinpoint the enemy positions, artillery or air support is swiftly radioed in.


@ The Georgian parliament called an emergency session on Thursday after five of its nationals were injured by "stray" Russian shelling in the border settlement of Shatili. The border crossing - seen by the Russians as a possible escape route for the Chechen rebels - has been the scene of fierce military activity over the past few days.


Airborne troops were parachuted into the area late last week in a bid to seal off the road into Georgia but Chechen sources are now claiming this force has effectively been destroyed. Georgian ministers have yet to decide how to react to the news whilst no comment has been forthcoming from the Russian high command.


Ruslan Isaev, a freelance Chechen reporter is a regular IWPR contributor


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