Chechen Snipers Halt Russian Troops
Chechen snipers pinned down Russian troops trying to advance in the shattered streets of the rebel republic's capital Thursday, even as tanks and helicopter gunships blasted the high-rise buildings where the sharpshooters were holed up.
A top Russian general was reported missing. Maj. Gen. Mikhail Malofeyev, head of a combat training unit, was not listed among the dead or those taken prisoner by the rebels, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said.
Officers in Grozny said Malofeyev had disappeared three days ago, when his unit was ambushed here.
Meanwhile, federal forces claimed to be making progress toward taking Grozny. Lt. Gen. Stanislav Kavun said troops had control of "a considerable part" of the Chechen capital, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. He said about 700 rebels remained as opposed to other estimates of about 2,000 and that they were "suffering heavy losses."
Top Russian officers had said in recent days that Russia was just days away from establishing full control over Grozny. However, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Thursday that the goal was not to meet any particular deadline, "but to completely eliminate the rebels and minimize casualties among Russian soldiers," the Interfax news agency reported.
The military said Thursday that four soldiers had been killed in Chechnya over the past 24 hours, but Interfax, citing unnamed sources, reported that 23 servicemen had been killed and 53 wounded. The report could not be confirmed.
Some officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that about 20 members of a single regiment in northwestern Grozny had been killed overnight when rebels snuck through sewage tunnels to strike the Russians from behind. The militants escaped.
Heavy air and artillery bombardment did not seem to slow the hail of bullets from the Chechen snipers' rifles, and Russian reconnaissance reported that the rebels had built a series of bunkers behind the apartment houses they occupied. Some Russian soldiers complained that their equipment was outdated.
"It's useless to pound the rebels with shells dating back to 1952," growled Lt. Col. Dmitry Tsybin, who was watching a tank bombardment in northwest Grozny. "These shells produce only noise and have very little destructive power. I haven't seen newer shells, say at least from the 1980s, used here."
An estimated 10,000 to 25,000 civilians are believed to still be in Grozny. Most are trying to save themselves by hiding in dark, unheated basements, and food and medical supplies are reported to be very low.
There are no estimates of how many civilians have been killed or wounded during the battles for Grozny. No municipal services are working, and doctors and nurses operate in makeshift clinics.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch group on Thursday accused Russian soldiers of raping Chechen women in Russian-controlled areas of Chechnya. Citing interviews with refugees who had spoken with the victims or seen their dead bodies, Human Rights Watch described rapes in Shali, 16 miles southeast of Grozny, and Alkhan-Yurt, just southwest of the Chechen capital.
"Rape is a war crime, and these allegations about rape in Chechnya are very serious," the group said in a press release.
The suffering of Chechen civilians has prompted international criticism of Russia's offensive, and the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body, plans to debate Russia's handling of the war on Jan. 27.
Lord Russel-Johnston, president of the council's parliamentary assembly who headed a fact-finding mission to the war zone this week, said Thursday that Russia's suspension now looked "more likely than before we arrived."