Excerpt from Chechnya by Carlotta Gall, Thomas de Waal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Chechnya

Calamity in the Caucasus

By Carlotta Gall, Thomas de Waal

Chechnya

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Around lunch-time Akhmed was in the main entrance hall of the Palace when someone ran in saying tanks were coming down the street. The men with grenade-launchers ran to take up positions, and Akhmed, armed only with a Kalashnikov, leapt up the stairs to a look-out point on the first floor. Standing in a corner room overlooking the square and the side street, he watched a Chechen fighter fire an anti-tank grenade on an armoured troop-carrier. Four soldiers spilled out of the burning vehicle, and Akhmed and another fighter fired from the second floor, mowing down the Russian soldiers before they could take cover.

Tanks and armoured troop-carriers coming along behind tried to turn around, jerkily reversing over pavements to get away. One of the two Ukrainian volunteer fighters who had joined the Chechens in the Presidential Palace showed Akhmed how to fire a Mukha, a shoulder-held anti-tank grenade launched straight from its tube. `I fired and I did not know if I hit the tank or not, but when I ran over to look, it was already burning. All the remaining windows had blown out. I was in a state of shock. The sound was deafening,' he said. Within ten minutes he had fired four missiles, intent on keeping the fire coming from the Palace, careless of his own safety. The powerful backlash of the weapon wrecked the corridor behind him. Below on the corner of Freedom Square five tanks were burning, the ammunition inside exploding in spectacular showers of sparks, the flames bright against the fading daylight. A tank was a `moving coffin', as a Chechen commander had boasted a few days before: `One hit is enough.'

Musost Khutiyev was a few blocks south, across the river on Subbotnikov Street, when word came in the early afternoon that Russian tanks were approaching. His group of sixteen men had eleven automatic rifles between them and only one rocket-propelled grenade, the only weapon that was any competition against a tank. All bearded, they were dressed in a motley uniform of Russian army surplus gear, jeans and sheepskin jackets, and wore black knitted hats. A few sported green headbands, the colour that symbolized both Chechen independence and Islam. They waited in a small cellar at a crossroads, listening to the rumble of the approaching armour. When someone with the grenade-launcher opened fire, disabling a tank, fighters erupted from their hiding-places all along the street to ambush the stragglers.

Across town on Pervomaiskaya Street, a long, broad avenue leading in from the airport, another fierce battle was raging where the 81st Motor Rifle Regiment came under ambush as it drove into town. Strung out for a mile along the avenue, the whole column came under fire from Chechen fighters positioned all the way down. Fighters were suddenly on the attack, running out in search of more tanks, plundering what did not burn for weapons and ammunition. By evening they gathered in the centre of the town, swarming around the market-place and moving towards the railway station.

The Maikop Brigade had occupied Grozny's railway station by early afternoon, parking its tanks and APCs in the square in front, facing the Presidential Palace, several hundred yards away down Orjonikidze Prospekt. They were unaware that they were a target for a very hostile and fierce Chechen resistance. Some members of the Presidential Guard even remember one Russian soldier poking his head out of the tank hatch to ask them where he could buy cigarettes. The Chechens answered him with a bullet to the head.

The Chechens took up positions in the depot buildings behind the railway station, the post office to the right and the five-storey building opposite. Over the radio they called on the Russians to surrender, warning them they were surrounded, but the Russians replied they had their orders and would not. Ryabtsev was standing under the arch of the railway budding when a bullet nicked his uniform. It was early evening, still fight, he remembered. It began slowly, with sniper fire and machine-guns rattling from nearby buildings. As the Russians answered with the big guns mounted on their armoured vehicles, the Chechens blasted them from the side with rocket-propelled grenades.

Copyright © 1998 Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal.  All rights reserved.

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