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Fatigue Thins Chechen Rebels' Ranks

April 03, 2000|MAYERBEK NUNAYEV and ROBYN DIXON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

URUS-MARTAN, Russia — Said Adiyev is a 24-year-old Chechen from one of the toughest guerrilla warrior forces in the world, yet with some mighty battles behind him, he has run out of places to take refuge from a vast and powerful enemy.

Exhausted and weak, he has put down his weapon and does not want to fight again.

Adiyev's is a story of desperation: In February, he spent weeks wandering with other rebels in the mountains of southern Chechnya, freezing, sick and half-starved, living on wild garlic grass, running low on ammunition and medicine.

Dogged by Russian bombers, the men saw their situation grow so dire that, by early March, they abandoned the mountains and descended to the village of Komsomolskoye, 15 miles south of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

But from there, escaping through the Russian lines, across heavily mined terrain, was even more hellish, Adiyev said in an interview in this Chechen town last week.

For the rebels, who are fighting to make their republic an independent state, the battle cry in the war against the Russians has been to fight until the last drop of their own blood is spilled. And as the war pounds on in southern Chechnya, they are having to face the grim choices those words convey.

Many are fighting on, or are merging into the civilian population, to rest and fight another day.

Others have made good their pledge to fight until the end--like a few of the 1,500 rebels trapped in Komsomolskoye last month. Concealing grenades, they walked across to the Russian side in feigned surrender, then blew themselves up in one last effort to kill a few more of their enemies.

But, while Russia mourns the deaths of 37 elite Interior Ministry servicemen killed in a rebel ambush last week, the war also has taken a heavy toll on the Chechen fighters. And some, like Adiyev, have had enough.

With 80,000 Russian troops pitted against a few thousand rebels, the fighters have been forced to break into smaller groups, fleeing from the plains to the southern mountains, then in desperation back to the plains again.

For Adiyev and his unit, the war began well. After Russian ground troops entered Chechnya in late September, the guerrillas let the Russians swoop into the republic's northern territory while they fortified their capital and resisted in the southern and eastern villages. Even as Grozny came under ferocious Russian attack in January, morale was high.

"We knew the city like the back of our hands and killed inexperienced [Russian] soldiers like grouse on their mating ground," Adiyev said.

When the rebels finally decided to retreat from Grozny in early February, he was part of a column of between 3,000 and 4,000 guerrillas who marched into the hills, losing a few hundred fighters in minefields. Six times during the hurried retreat, he recalled, they also walked right into Russian lines and had to fight their way out, leaving even more dead warriors behind.

"But we learned the most shocking news only when we got to the mountains," he said. "There were no food and ammunition bases there. All of them had been found and destroyed by the Russian aviation. It meant the end for us, and all of our plans and hopes crashed. There was nothing left in the mountains but bare rocks and snow.

"All of us were physically exhausted," Adiyev continued. "We had a lot of wounded and frostbitten men among us. We were starving and some of us were on the verge of breakdown."

Trapped on a peak and pounded by Russian bombers, the rebels decided to move once again to the plains. About 1,500 men under commanders Arbi Barayev and Ruslan Gelayev entered Komsomolskoye beginning March 5. But as they tried to prepare their defense, they found the village was bare.

"The thing that shocked us most of all was the fact we could not find any gardening tools around--no spades, no shovels, no axes, nothing. Everything had been plundered and taken away. We could not even dig in and fortify our positions. We managed to find only five rusty spades in the whole village," Adiyev said.

"The Russians had no mercy. They hurled everything at us. We tried to hide, but there were not very many places in town where we could find decent shelter. And we did not have enough ammunition to fire back," he said.

The battle of Komsomolskoye began March 7 and raged for two weeks as the Russians bombed and shelled the settlement house by house. Rebel casualties were high, including 50 wounded fighters killed in a direct hit on the basement where they were sheltering.

The rebel commanders ordered their men to split into small groups of about 10 each to try to fight their way out. But the escape routes were heavily mined.

"I am the only one who survived in my group of nine people," Adiyev said. "The rest were killed by Russian booby traps."

Interviewed in the village of Lermontovo last week, another veteran of the Komsomolskoye fighting, 28-year-old Taus Kirimov, said the rebels, armed mainly with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, were vastly outgunned.

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