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Moscow Targets Mountain Strongholds

Russia carpet-bombs the Chechen mountains in a bid to flush out rebel troops. But the separatists say the only victims of the raids are unarmed civilians.
By Ruslan Isaev

Russian aircraft continued to pound mountain villages to the south of Grozny this week, despite Chechen claims that they had already been abandoned by separatist forces.


Rebel leaders said that Su-24 bombers had staged dozens of sorties over Itum-Kale and Shatoy, strategic heights near the Georgian border, blasting the settlements with vacuum bombs and napalm. Seventy civilians were reported to have died in the attacks between February 6-9.


Itum-Kale was seized on Thursday by Russian paratroops dropped from helicopter gunships - a victory which the Russian high command has hailed as the final stage in its seizure of the Argun Gorge.


However, Chechen commander Aslambek Abdulkhadzhiev said rebel guerrillas had left the village several days previously, heading for remote mountain strongholds to the east and west. Airborne units captured nothing more than "deserted heaps of rubble", he said.


In an earlier incident, Russian bombers blitzed Katyr-Yurt and Shaami-Yurt with 1.5-tonne bombs, deployed for the first time in the campaign. Federal troops surrounded the villages after 600 guerrillas under Ruslan Gelaev were reported to be regrouping there.


After nearly a week of ground-to-ground rocket bombardments, the civilian populations of Katyr-Yurt and Shaami-Yurt left the settlement under a white flag to negotiate a ceasefire with Russian commanders. One local elder who gave his name as Shamil said the rebels had left the village the previous evening, moving on to mountain strongholds.


Shamil claimed that many of the civilians fell under a mortar barrage while others were fired on by Russian troops. Soon, the streets were littered with corpses which residents were too terrified to bury.


Russian troops entered the village on February 8 and embarked on an orgy of looting, said Shamil, burning down the plundered houses in a bid to cover their tracks.


The federal press-centre subsequently announced that 300 Chechen fighters were killed in the fighting around Katyr-Yurt - but it has often succumbed to the temptation to exaggerate rebel losses in the past.


The bombing raids came as an ominous prelude to the "last phase of the anti-terrorist campaign in Chechnya" as federal troops attempt to seize the Argun and Vedeno gorges, two vital passes into the rocky hinterland.


General Victor Kazantsev, commander of the Russian forces, said February 9, "We know where the bandit groups are congregating. First and foremost, they will be destroyed there. The fate of the bandits has already been decided."


Fired by their surprise victory in Grozny, federal forces have been swift to follow up their advantage, mounting up to 200 bombing raids a day over the mountain passes. It is thought there are between 5,000 and 7,000 separatists still at large.


While Moscow trumpeted its victory along the Argun River, paratroops were dropped on Day, Khidi-Khutor and Tsa-Vedeno, key positions on the high ground south-east of Grozny. Serzhen-Yurt, at the mouth of the Vedeno Gorge, was reportedly seized by elite Russian marines on Thursday night.


But despite a new confidence amongst the Russian general staff, occupying forces are facing constant harassment in territories already under their control. In the wake of the Grozny siege, rebel fighters are apparently melting back into the civilian population, waiting for opportunities to launch partisan attacks on federal strongholds.


Last week, two gun emplacements in Urus-Martan and Achkhoy-Martan were fired on by rebel snipers while, four kilometres outside Argun, guerrillas destroyed a stretch of railway track, then strafed two military trains with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire.


Federal retaliation has been brutal. Refugees heading for the Ingushetian border tell horrifying tales of Russian terror tactics while Chechen leaders claim 600 civilians have been shot by federal troops since the retreat from the capital. New York-based Human Rights Watch says it is investigating around 50 reports of summary executions.


Seda Saralapova, from the Michurina district of Grozny, said she had seen 20 people shot in the courtyard of a local hospital. Saralapova had been hiding in a debris-choked shell-hole at the time. She said the civilians - including two 10-year-old girls, Zoya Sultanova and Malika Serbieva - were executed after Russian troops had looted and burned their homes.


Dismissing out of hand any accusations that war crimes have been committed in Chechnya, Russia's generals are taking tougher measures to assert federal control over occupied villages.


Forces have been redeployed across the republic: a division has been based at Khankala, in Grozny's western suburbs, while motor-rifle regiments of between 2,500 and 3,000 men will be stationed at Shali and Itum-Kale by the end of March.


Around 50 fortified checkpoints have been set up along the main highways into Grozny while 30 kilometres of mountain roads have been mined. On Thursday, the rebels' underground TV station, Kavkaz, was discovered by federal agents in the village of Oktyabrskoe near the Dagestani border and shut down.


Rebels who surrendered during the retreat from Grozny - 5,000 according to General Kazantsev, 500 according to Justice Minister Yuri Chaika - have been dispatched to detention camps. More than 230 have reportedly been released.


Yuri Biryukov, of the Russian prosecutor's office said most of the prisoners were captured after the February 1 government amnesty had expired. "If the Duma extends the amnesty, then we'll reconsider this question [of setting them free]," he said.


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


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