The Chechens' Surprise

The Russians are forced to fight hard over lost ground as Chechen rebels attempt to relieve the pressure on Grozny.

The Chechens' Surprise

The Russians are forced to fight hard over lost ground as Chechen rebels attempt to relieve the pressure on Grozny.

Friday, 14 January, 2000

A rebel counter-attack on three occupied settlements in Chechnya was launched in retaliation against Russian attempts to terrorise the civilian population, Chechen leaders have claimed. The surprise assaults on Shali, Argun and Gudermes caught the occupying forces off-guard with fighters seizing key military objectives in all three towns. Although federal troops have since recovered much of the lost ground, the blow to Russian military credibility has been severe.

Aslanbek Asaev, who led the 300-strong rebel force, said the attack came in the wake of random arrests in Shali town centre on the previous day. Over 52 "rebel suspects" were rounded up on Svoboda ("Freedom") Square, interrogated by military police and dispatched to filtration camps.

Asaev said he had previously warned Russian commanders that any attempt to victimise non-combatant civilians would have serious repercussions. The arrests were carried out by Interior Ministry troops who had recently been stationed in the settlement.

The Chechen fighters approached Shali from the south, swooping on local military headquarters and an OMON (special police unit) garrison which was billeted in School No. 8. The pro-Russian administration was forced to surrender and captured Russian troops were relieved of their weapons before being sent back to federal lines.

Around 60 guerrillas remained in Shali, while the bulk of the force pressed on to Argun and Gudermes, storming a series of Russian bunkers along the main road. In Argun, they seized the military HQ, the grain silo and the railway station, forcing a detachment of Yakutian OMON to abandon their positions and beat a hasty retreat.

A Russian armoured column - sent from Grozny to relieve the beleaguered garrison at Argun - was ambushed by Asaev's men, just a few kilometres outside the town. The Chechens claim to have destroyed five tanks and APCs and captured six artillery pieces.

Russian retaliation was swift and brutal. A barrage of Luna missiles was unleashed on Shali, pulverising buildings in the town centre and leaving 32 dead. Local elders persuaded the remaining fighters to abandon the settlement, fearing further reprisals.

In Argun, around 200 Chechen fighters were beaten back to the town's industrial region, defending their positions with captured artillery. At the time of this writing, it was still not clear whether the Russians had gained the upper hand. Certainly, federal commanders were unwilling to commit ground troops to the battle, preferring to pound the Chechen lines with tank shells.

Meanwhile, the Russians are claiming important victories in the Argun and Vedeno gorges, to the south of the republic. Defence minister Igor Sergeev announced last week that one third of the Argun gorge was already under federal control and the settlement of Sharoy had been captured by elite paratroops.

After learning their lesson the hard way, Russian generals are now devoting considerable efforts to securing the occupied territories. Police units have launched a ruthless "zachistka" of all settlements to the south of Grozny - literally a cleaning-up operation aimed at unmasking rebel fighters posing as civilians.

Roadblocks have been set up on major thoroughfares, and all "rebel suspects" are subjected to rigorous document checks and body searches. Police even examine suspects for evidence of weapons-handling - callused trigger fingers or marks left by chafing rifle straps.

The Ingushetian border is the scene of growing turmoil as thousands of Chechen refugees attempt to flee the war-zone. At the Kavkaz checkpoint on the old Caucasian Military Highway, around 5,000 Chechens have been stopped by border guards, under orders to prevent any men between the ages of 10 and 60 from crossing the frontier.

With no facilities to house them, the refugees spill across the roadside, terrified of straying into nearby minefields, fighting against the cold. Many offer their last possessions to the soldiers in a desperate bid to move on. Others watch helplessly as their male relatives are packed off to filtration camps, where conditions are said to be inhumane.

Last week, Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper stepped up its criticism of the war, particularly after Gen. Victor Kazantsev's crack-down on Chechen civilians. "In the search for a scapegoat for its recent disasters," it wrote, "the military have chosen the entire male population of Chechnya."

Ruslan Isaev is a freelance Chechen journalist and regular IWPR contributor.

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