Jubilant Chechen soldiers strolled through the burning center of Grozny on Monday, waving their green separatist flag in triumph after battling Russian troops back to the edge of the city.
The fight for the capital is far from over, but less than 24 hours after Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel S. Grachev announced that his forces controlled the area around Grozny’s presidential palace, the only Russians to be found there were dead soldiers and prisoners of war, according to reports from the scene.
Many of the Russian soldiers who survived the continuous assault by thousands of straggly, bearded and untrained Chechen rebels were reported to have taken refuge in basements, abandoned buildings and unused factories.
“Our forces have met stubborn resistance, but they have blockaded the city,” said a Russian Press Center statement issued in Moscow on Monday.
While Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships streaked constantly across the sunny skies over Grozny and surrounding towns Monday, it was still possible for cars to enter the city, and no Russian ground troops were in sight on its southern tier.
In this suburb of Grozny, where the fighting has been heavy for more than a week, bombers flew low from noon to night, destroying houses, cars and a farm bazaar and trying - but failing - to destroy a heavily armed Chechen tank.
“They are shelling us from every place they can,” said Isa Alayev, 31, as a Russian SU-27 fighter flew low over the horizon toward the eastern edge of Grozny five miles away. “They want us to die. They want to scare us and make us leave. But we are here, and we are staying.”
That is a lesson that the Russians seem unable to accept. Grachev said Monday that his forces would “cleanse the city within a week.” With an estimated 40,000 Russian troops surrounding the secessionist capital, that is clearly possible, but only if Russia is willing to send thousands of its soldiers to a certain death in new ground fighting.
“It is a graveyard of tanks that stretches to the horizons,” Anatoly Shabad, a member of the Russian Parliament who came to Grozny to protest the military offensive, said Monday.
Shabad, who until Monday morning had taken shelter in the bunker of the presidential palace, said he had seen dozens of burning Russian tanks lined up at a railroad station. He remained in Chechnya on Monday night.
A parliamentary delegation that just returned to Moscow from Grozny said in a statement that “thousands of innocent people have died, tens of thousands made homeless, and hundreds of servicemen have died.”
The deputies, who have called desperately for President Boris Yeltsin to stop the offensive and negotiate, said: “The government is concealing the truth about losses. We are talking about mass murder tantamount to genocide.”
The deputies included Viktor Sheinis, Lev Ponomarev and the Rev. Gleb Yakunin, all liberal democrats.
So far, the Russian military tactics have failed spectacularly in almost every respect. The initial assaults - using surrogates and mercenaries opposed to the rule of the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev - were repeatedly rebuffed.
Russians first pounded the city with bombs, killing many civilians and inspiring thousands of Chechens to support Dudayev, who had never been very popular in the past.
For weeks, Chechens awaited what they considered the inevitable - the storming of their capital. When it finally came on New Year’s Eve, it was the worst possible type of assault: Relatively inexperienced Russian troops in light armored vehicles normally reserved for transport were slaughtered by Chechens with grenade launchers and heavy antitank guns.
There was little support for the first group of Russians sent into the center of Grozny, and after heavy fighting they began to run out of ammunition. Having rushed too few soldiers into the city, the Russian military commanders found themselves in a trap.
Having failed in its first attempt to take the city by storm, Russian generals have few options open to them: They can continue the bombing that has already turned the city of 400,000 people into a rubble-strewn ghost town, or they can attack with far greater force.
That will cost many more lives than have already been sacrificed, but it may be the only way that Yeltsin can take control of Grozny.