Bold Chechen Rebels Fight the Russian Army on Two Fronts
Date: January 3, 2000
The soldiers in Russia's 74th Brigade call the pile of bricks and concrete on the outskirts of this Chechen town "the white wall." The bulwark lies in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains and marks one of the deepest lines of the Russian advance into southern Chechnya.
It is also a primary target for hundreds of rebels hiding in Chechnya's high country. Russian troops here are anticipating a major attack in the next few days. So are the Chechen residents of Avtury. Many are packing up and getting out.
"We are shelled by mortar fire every day," said Anton Kuzin, a private in the Russian Army whose bandaged right hand was injured by sniper fire this afternoon. "It's pretty scary, but I think we will win in the end."
Most of the world's attention is focused on Grozny, the Chechen capital that Russian forces have pounded for months and where Russian casualties are beginning to mount as they now try to take the city. But there are two fronts in this war: Grozny, in the Chechen lowland, and the mountains here in southern Chechnya.
Under heavy fire, the rebels have retreated into both regions, but they have hardly given up the fight. Instead of fleeing deeper into the mountains, the rebels have been trying to counterattack.
The rebels apparently aim to reunite their forces by blasting a path from their mountain hideouts to Grozny and other Chechen towns in the lowland to the north.
"The task of our unit is to prevent the militants from breaking through from the mountains to the plains," said Colonel Yevgeny, a deputy brigade commander who declined to give his last name. "There are more and more attempts these days, and the fighting is quite fierce."
Avtury is a town about 18 miles southeast of Grozny. It sits in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains and on the junction of a major north-south road.
It was a quiet and well-to-do settlement before the war, nestled among rich farmland that today is scared with wrecked cars, trenches and collapsed fences.
The 74th Brigade, a motorized infantry unit, fought its way here in early December. It has been tough going ever since. The rebel trenches are just several hundred yards away and can be seen through binoculars. The fields and hillsides echo with artillery and the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons. The two sides are so close that they sometimes yell profanities at each other.
"The machine-gun fire and snipers are so active that it's hard for us to dig trenches," said Dmitri, a 23-year-old lieutenant at an observation post, an earthen mound near a pile of trees, leveled in earlier fighting. "They are trying to sneak through and get to the villages in the north. It's nerve-racking to be here, and we practically don't sleep at night."
There are more than 100,000 Russian troops in Chechnya and some 8,000 rebels, according to Russian estimates. The Russians also have the superior firepower. They have tanks, self-propelled artillery and armored personnel carriers. Today, the Russian artillery was barraging rebel camps, sending thunderous booms through the mountains.
But even with such an overwhelming advantage, Russian soldiers say they are up against a determined foe.
The Russians' edge in numbers and armor has allowed them to sweep across the northern plains with relative ease and capture the lowland. But their large number and heavy weapons are less effective in the urban streets of Grozny or in the rugged highland of southern Chechnya, and these are the areas where the rebels are hiding and where Russia now risks getting bogged down.
The terrain here is far more familiar to the militants, who are proving surprisingly mobile as they range around the hills in Kamaz trucks and jeeps, the Russians say.
They respond to the Russian bombardment by firing mortars, which today destroyed one Russian tank, and with snipers, who wounded Private Kuzin. Russian soldiers assert that Arab and other Islamic mercenaries are fighting alongside the Chechens. Yevgeny, the deputy brigade commander, said his troops have recovered notes in Arabic from some of the rebel casualties and a round-trip airline ticket from Istanbul to Tbilisi, the capital of neighboring Georgia.
The rebel attacks generally begin in the morning when the militants crawl through the dense fog toward the Russian lines, in groups that range from several dozen to as many as 150, sometimes getting close enough to lob a grenade.
To the surprise of the Russians, the militants sometimes leave their trenches and charge across open terrain. One rebel ran up to the Russian positions five days ago shouting "Allah akbar" ("God is great") and tossed a grenade into a Russian armored personnel carrier before he was gunned down.
The militants are sometimes so bold that Russian troops say they must be taking drugs, an allegation for which there is no evidence but which reflects the Russians' astonishment at their aggressiveness.
The Russians think that they are causing heavy casualties, but it is difficult to know for sure since the militants rarely leave their dead behind.
Fighting near the Caucasus Mountains also has special complications for the Russian troops. Unlike those people who live in the northern plains of Chechnya, much of the population here is sympathetic to the rebels. Even in the southern areas the Russians say they have liberated, they are not always welcome and have difficulty maintaining control, especially after dark.
Yevgeny, the colonel, said that Avtury's residents give the rebels information on the location of Russian troops and that a senior Russian Interior Ministry official who was kidnapped before the war was sometimes held here.
Russian armored vehicles have recently run into mines, laid by Avtury residents who sneak out at night. The Russian soldiers believe that villagers who are packing up and leaving today have been tipped off by the militants that an attack is imminent.
As part of the Russian campaign to win the support of the local population here, the brigade has also been ordered not to fire at the village of Serzhen-Yurt, less than two miles north of here.
Hundreds of the militants are believed to have taken refuge among the villagers. The village elders from Serzhen-Yurt have talked to the Russian soldiers here and told them that the militants have made themselves at home in their town and refuse to leave.
Today, the main action was at the so-called white wall, a mound of rubble with small openings through which the Russian troops exchange fire with the enemy.
The Russians were doing most of the shooting, but they did not silence the militants. This is where Private Kuzin, a young draftee from the town of Angarsk in Siberia, was wounded by a sniper about 4 p.m. today.
He was wearing a bulletproof vest, so the sniper aimed at the lower part of his body. The bullet blasted his right hand, which he was holding by his side. He did not seem surprised to have been wounded. An officer in his platoon was wounded just last night.
"It's really scary to be here," Private Kuzin said. "But the fighting has also drawn all of the soldiers together. Nobody cares what nationality you are. We feel like we are all in this together. We're ready to stay at the front."
But Private Kuzin was blunt when he was asked whether any of the soldiers have ever re-enlisted so that they could stay with their comrades after their term of service expired.