Chechen fighters turned a strategic town on their rebel republic’s western border into a fortified camp Friday, anticipating an all-out Russian attack.
They dug new trenches throughout the town of Samashky, set up large-caliber machine guns and brought in fresh forces to shore up their positions after several days of Russian shelling.
“We expect an assault by the Russians any minute,” said Rashid Tatiyev, 28, a volunteer wearing a camouflage uniform and a combat helmet with a green Muslim ribbon on it.
Also Friday, the 33-nation Council of Europe suspended membership talks with Russia until Moscow ends its war on the tiny, breakaway republic.
The council’s assembly, meeting in Strasbourg, France, condemned the “indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the Russian military” in Chechnya.
And in Moscow, there were more signs that one of the architects of the bogged-down, widely unpopular war was in trouble.
An influential newspaper said President Boris Yeltsin had confronted Defense Minister Pavel Grachev about a secret bank account in Germany. It said Grachev, who is hospitalized for what aides called a routine checkup, came down with a bad case of “cowardice.”
Neither the Defense Ministry nor Yeltsin’s office would comment on the report in the daily Segodnya, which said more than $20 million from the sale of Warsaw Pact military equipment was stashed in the account.
Grachev has been intensely criticized since Russian troops rolled into Chechnya to suppress the southern region’s three years of self-proclaimed independence.
The war has embarrassed the army, which has made few advances against the Chechen irregulars. Thousands of people have been killed and most of Grozny, the Chechen capital, has been destroyed.
Russian troops invaded Chechnya on Dec. 11 and tried to storm Grozny on Dec. 31. Despite their vastly superior force, they now control only part of northern Chechnya and the north side of Grozny.
The war has recently been spreading into Chechen-held territory in the south and west, and towns like Samashky, previously unscathed, are finding themselves on the front line.
Despite the Russian government’s claim two days earlier that Russians controlled Samashky, Chechen fighters and volunteers held the town and all approaches to it on Friday.
They said roads around the village had been mined, although cars still passed through on the main road to Grozny.
The town’s population had swelled to 20,000 with refugees, but most residents have fled in the last few days. Hundreds of fighters remain, and some defiant residents.
“We won’t go anywhere,” said 38-year-old Tamara Tsamayeva, a fighter’s wife and the mother of three children. “Let them kill us here.”
Samashky, 18 miles west of Grozny, is important for Russian troops because of the paved road that goes through it.
In subfreezing temperatures, Russian convoys looped around Samashky on a dirt road to Grozny a few miles to the north. But because of a midwinter thaw the road is now muddy and difficult for tanks.
“The Russians would very much like to use the good paved road through Samashky to quickly move their troops and vehicles,” said Khadzhi-Murat Bashayev, a Chechen field commander.
Besides trying to take Samashky, the Russians have shelled the towns of Bamut and Arshty almost daily, according to Magomet Ibragimov, Chechen security chief in AchkhoiMartan, six miles south of Samashky.