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Grozny Awaits

Last Monday, Moscow dropped leaflets on Grozny telling all residents they must leave before Saturday. That deadline is now upon the city's band of defenders - and an estimated 30,000 innocent civilians.
By Ruslan Isaev

Serious or not, the notorious deadline - leave or die - set by the Russian military is upon Grozny's five or six thousand defenders and their commander, Aslanbe Ismailov. They - and an estimated 30,000 civilians - have dug in as best as they can.


And they wait. For they are confident that unless the federal forces try storming the besieged city, it can survive through to the spring.


Despite the recent Russian promises for safe passage out for civilians, the scale of the massive bombardment from the Russian guns that encircle the city means that it is virtually impossible to leave during daylight.


Fewer than 500 people have reportedly managed to escape through the Pervomayskoe corridor since the Russian generals' ultimatum's was announced. Mostly they leave at night when the guns fall silent and the federal soldiers are busy guarding against attacks from their rear.


Moscow is in full control of all the main roads into Grozny. In the south west the Russians are now just four kilometres away. To the north lies the Shuzhensky ridge from where artillery positions overlook and rain fire down on the north eastern part of the city including the airport.


But the strongest bombardments from both tank and artillery barrages have been felt in Khankala district in the east which is heavily defended by units led by Commander Magodem Khambiev.


Grozny resident Madarov Jusuf was among those who have left the city since last week's ultimatum was delivered by air. Having first seen his family safe in Ingushetia six weeks ago, he returned to Grozny to guard his apartment from looters - having lost household valuables during the last war between 1994-6.


But this week, under constant shelling, without electricity, water or gas, it all finally became too much and he abandoned his home. Though he was leaving his nine-storey home, a lot of his neighbours were not. Most of them were single women.


Polina, an elderly ethnic Russian, is one of those staying. She has to, she says, to look after her husband who is paralysed. A small street trader, she survives by selling cigarettes, bread and canned food out in the open and shares the money with her supplier, a man from the nearby town of Shali.


Caught out by a recent bombardment, she was forced to take cover under her wooden stall. "It went on for two hours and for being so long on the cold ground I fell sick and had to stay home the next day. But here I am again," she said. "I need the money."


Despite the deadline, the latest talk in the city is that the Russians will not try and storm Grozny, but will look instead to tighten their grip and hope to starve the fighters of ammunition and the people of food.


The people of nearby Shali have already given up and were yesterday negotiating their surrender to the Russian soldiers that surrounded them. The guns were silent on Thursday night as I used the cover of darkness to quit the town, 20 miles south east of Grozny and headed for the Ingush border.


I left only civilians - women, children and the elderly behind. Despite western press reports that many Chechen fighters remained inside, Shali had been left undefended for more than a week.


The Chechen fighters had withdrawn while I was in Grozny. Where to was not clear. It could have been northwards to try their luck passing through the Russian lines into the city - or perhaps south to lie up and regroup in the forest covered mountains which begin less than four miles from Shali.


Like the Russians, Chechen tactics have changed since the last war. Said Ali Sultanov, a commander who was initially tasked with leading the defence of Argun to the north of the capital: "We will try to stop the advancement of Russian troops as long as we can. Then we will retreat to the mountains to launch a partisan war,"


But with the areas to the east around Argun and Shali now abandoned, this leaves Russian and Chechen forces left now only fighting for just Grozny and around the village of Staryi Achkhoi, 40 miles west of the capital.


The fall of Staryi Achkhoi will allow the federal forces to move closer to the mountains from the west and allows them to link up with troops from the east and so block off any subsequent movement of Chechen fighters in and out of the mountains to the south.


Ruslan Isaev is a freelance Chechen journalist who has reported for RFE and Vremya MN.


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