The Kremlin’s forces bogged down in an urban battlefield Sunday as guerrillas inside the rebel capital of Chechnya set Russian tanks ablaze and claimed to have captured 100 Russian soldiers.
As New Year’s Day television programs showed the mangled corpses of Russian soldiers strewn along Grozny’s streets, the official government press center admitted that its military position had “become more complicated over the last 24 hours.”
But Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev claimed that Russian forces are in control of the entire city center, as well as several suburban areas. Grachev said the palace that has been the headquarters of Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev is now blockaded, but skirmishes continue nearby.
Thousands of fresh Chechen fighters poured into Grozny from the countryside intent on beating back the Russian forces aiming to crush this mainly Muslim republic’s 3-year-old declaration of independence.
The volunteer Chechen reinforcements, jammed onto trucks along the last open highway into Grozny, augured a long and costly combat in Chechnya. Many shouted “Allah is great” as their trucks rolled past.
Russian tanks and troops had launched an attack on central Grozny on New Year’s Eve, enveloping the area in a hellish firefight and occupying several key buildings.
But as the war in Chechnya entered its third week Sunday, it was clear that winning it would not be easy.
Before Russia began pouring tens of thousands of troops into this breakaway southern republic of 1.2 million people, Grachev had boasted that a Russian paratrooper division could subdue Grozny in a day. On Sunday night, he said it would take five or six days to “cleanse the city of gangs.”
He blamed foreign mercenaries fighting alongside the Chechens, saying they are “highly professional” but “extremely cruel toward civilians.”
Chechen soldiers paraded several captured Russian tanks through the streets. They claimed that Russian troops had been largely beaten back to the city’s outskirts.
Several gutted Russian tanks could be seen burning near Grozny’s railroad station, and the thunder and lightning of heavy fighting continued near the presidential palace.
“The New Year was celebrated in Grozny by fireworks made of Russian tanks,” the Russian Itogi television program reported, showing a blazing hulk shooting sparks into the smoky night.
Itogi said Russian tank columns, cut off from infantry support, have fallen into a classic trap in the city. It said Russian troops are at a disadvantage fighting in a city “where every basement window is a gun port and every third resident has a Kalashnikov and a grenade launcher.”
The program went on to skewer Grachev by airing month-old footage of the defense minister declaring, “Only an incompetent commander would use tanks in a city.”
“A 12-year-old youth with a bottle of gasoline in hand can at any moment terminate the lives of four Russian soldiers maddened from fighting in an armored vehicle,” said Itogi host Yevgeny Kiselev. “And then a tank becomes a grave.”
Much of the male population of Chechnya seemed headed to Grozny to back up its defenders in response to a televised call to arms from the Chechen leadership.
Grozny, a large Soviet-style metropolis that is normally home to 400,000 people, presents an extremely difficult military problem for the Russian troops charged with subduing an implacably hostile population.
Even if the Russian forces take the presidential palace, the conflict will almost certainly continue.
Dudayev’s forces have vowed they will never surrender. If they are defeated in the city, they say, they will take their battle to the hills and wage tactical guerrilla warfare against any government that Moscow installs.
In the meantime, however, it was not clear who has the upper hand in Grozny. Chechen forces said they were on a “hunt for Russian tanks and soldiers,” tracking down the Russian armor and knocking it out.
The Chechens claimed the city is fully in their control except for two or three pockets of Russian troops and tanks, while Moscow claimed just the reverse.
But the Russian firepower so outweighs the Chechen resources that it appeared that blasts in the center and bombing in the villages mean the slow but unstoppable destruction of Dudayev’s forces.
Only one thing is clear, said Sergei A. Kovalev, President Boris N. Yeltsin’s top human rights adviser: The cost to human life is already great.
“The victims number in the hundreds, victims from both sides,” said Kovalev, the former Soviet dissident who has become Russia’s most eloquent anti-war activist. “I can only say that if the palace and the city in general are taken, there will be thousands of victims.”
In Washington, incoming Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said that Russian democracy and U.S. assistance to that democracy may be jeopardized by the growing violence in Chechnya.
“This is a no-win situation for Yeltsin,” he said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “It’s an indication that democracy may be on the brink.”