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Chechen Rebels Report Loss of 3 Commanders

Russia: Guerrillas seek to flee as federal forces appear to reach a turning point in battle for Grozny, the capital.

February 02, 2000|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Rebels in the separatist republic of Chechnya reported Tuesday that three of their top commanders, including the mayor of Grozny, were killed as hundreds of fighters attempted to retreat from the Chechen capital under heavy fire from advancing Russian troops.

Russian Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev said his forces had reached a turning point in their monthlong battle to take Grozny. Some reports said as many as 2,000 rebels were trying to leave the besieged city.

"A crucial change in Grozny has taken place, judging by the reports of the federal forces headquarters and in my own opinion," Sergeyev told reporters in Mozdok, where Russian commanders are based.

Although the tide in Grozny appeared to be turning in favor of the Russians, federal officials were cautious about claiming success. The rebels said they had retreated from the city, but Russian officials said that the Chechens still controlled parts of it and that fighting was fierce.

According to a report Tuesday on the rebels' Web site, http://www.kavkaz.org, Grozny Mayor Lecha Dudayev was killed Sunday attempting to escape the city. Other reports said he was killed by a land mine. Dudayev is the nephew of separatist leader and former Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev, who was killed by a Russian bomb during the 1994-96 Chechen war.

The rebels also reported that Gen. Aslanbek Ismailov, who was in charge of the defense of Grozny, and Gen. Khunkarpasha Israpilov were killed in action Tuesday.

There were unconfirmed reports from the region that warlord and rebel commander Shamil Basayev had been wounded by a land mine and had lost a leg, but similar reports have circulated at least twice in recent weeks.

Russian officials said they could not verify either the three reported deaths or Basayev's reported injury. Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya, cautioned that the rebels could be circulating false reports to confuse or distract federal forces.

Yastrzhembsky said Russian troops, who seized the strategic Minutka Square in the center of Grozny on Monday, continued to hold it and were advancing into other parts of the city.

"Minutka Square has acquired symbolic significance," he said. "It is a strategic city hub that is the key to many thoroughfares and roads leading into Grozny.

"Seizing Minutka, first of all, is an important symbolic success and second, it is an important strategic, administrative and transport hub that is now in the hands of the federal forces," he added.

Chechen commanders had previously said that they would hold the city as long as possible and inflict the greatest damage possible on the "Russian aggressors" before retreating into the rugged Caucasus Mountains and joining other rebels to continue their guerrilla war.

The strategy is similar to the one used by the rebels during the 1994-96 war, in which they gave up Grozny but returned to take it a year later and drive the Russians out of Chechnya.

Sergeyev said that this time, Russian soldiers will not give the rebels a chance to escape from Grozny, as they did in 1995.

"Nobody will ever allow the rebels to leave the city other than under a white flag and after laying down their weapons," he said.

NTV television cited reports from Russian commanders that one group of retreating rebels suffered heavy casualties as it attempted to cross a minefield and that another was destroyed by Russian artillery.

Associated Press reported that 2,000 rebels who had fled Grozny regrouped at the village of Alkhan-Kala on the outskirts of the city. It said that Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers had ringed the village but that federal forces appeared reluctant to attack.

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