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Chechens Repel Russian Forces, Stay in Capital

Caucasus: Separatists inflict heavy casualties in two days of fighting. Aid workers and others remain trapped.

August 08, 1996|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Chechen rebels who seized their shattered capital in a surprise attack fended off a feeble counteroffensive by Russian federal forces Wednesday in Grozny, shooting down helicopter gunships trying to drive them out and blocking the airport and an armored column of reinforcements.

The fiery clash--which trapped aid workers, journalists and Moscow's puppet Chechen government inside a rebel cordon--inflicted heavy casualties on an already demoralized Russian contingent and sent an embarrassing reminder to the Kremlin that Chechnya remains an untamed renegade.

After two days of fierce fighting, the latest escalation in the 20-month-old war had left 50 Russian troops dead, 200 wounded and Moscow fumbling for a new strategy to bring its worst post-Soviet security nightmare to an end.

An armored column sent to pound the rebels out of their newly recovered territory was forced to a humiliating halt at the outskirts of smoldering Grozny by mines that Chechen guerrillas had laid as they stormed the city from surrounding mountains early Tuesday.

The road between the embattled city center and the Russian-controlled airport at Severny was also cut off by mines and barricades thrown up by the separatists, according to federal officers hunkered down at the airport command post in the southern republic.

Eight helicopter gunships rumbling over the smoking ruins in search of separatist strongholds were shot out of the sky, and 15 armored vehicles were lost by the government side, Russian news agencies reported. The commander of one federal military district--Col. Sergei Ashlapov in embattled Khankala--was killed by a sniper before dawn, the Interfax news agency said.

Battles between the rebels and the heavily armed but dispirited federal contingent have persisted throughout the war, dropping in intensity only during the first days of a cease-fire agreed to in July 1995 and again with equal insincerity in May, on the eve of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's reelection.

Angered by increasing attacks by the allegedly withdrawing federal forces, the rebels, led by separatist commando Shamil Basayev, stormed out of their mountain hide-outs at dawn Tuesday. The fierce, sudden offensive that was reported to have involved no more than a few hundred Chechen fighters chased out the government military units left to guard the ruined city, which is ostensibly under the control of a Moscow-installed government headed by Doku Zavgayev.

A similar attack in March grabbed territory for the rebels in a stunning invasion that appeared aimed more at making clear to the world that the war was not over than at any realistic expectation of holding Grozny.

The latest offensive by the still outnumbered and outgunned separatists was believed to be an attempt to embarrass Yeltsin ahead of his Friday inauguration--and likely to end in the same way as the March incursion, with the Chechen gunmen slipping back to the mountains after rattling their enemies.

"There is no doubt that once they have fulfilled their mission, which all law enforcement bodies and federal secret services have failed to unravel, the fighters will again manage to sneak out of the city," Russian state television correspondent Mikhail Alexandridi reported from Grozny.

Among the government buildings seized by the rebels Wednesday was the city's communications center. The Muslim separatists blasted away at the headquarters of the pro-Moscow government, but the sketchy news reports suggested that they had failed to take it.

Moscow reacted to the most recent in a series of setbacks in Chechnya with the usual mix of pleas for a cease-fire and threats to exterminate the rebels.

Kremlin Security Council chief Alexander I. Lebed issued a statement in Moscow accusing the rebels of forcing the federal government to resort to "coercive measures."

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