The streets of Chechnya’s capital were littered with bodies Sunday as Russian tank and infantry forces sprayed mortar and rocket fire at what seemed to be every building left standing there.
Russian television showed pictures of the fighting in Grozny with Russian and Chechen soldiers very often battling for control of single buildings and opposite sides of the same street.
After a month of a war that grows more intense each day, it is hard to define turning points. The government in Moscow made no official statements about the war on Sunday, and criticism of the war continued both from politicians and within the military itself.
But it appears clear to observers that the Russian military is determined to take control. Since Dec. 11, the Russian government has deployed about 40,000 troops to Chechnya, a mostly Muslim southern region that declared independence from the Russian Federation in 1991.
Sunday was the ninth day of the Russian ground assault on Grozny, and tanks fired relentlessly at the Presidential Palace as paratroopers of the Russian special forces dug into positions less than 500 yards away. Western and Russian reporters said several hundred Russian troops died on Sunday in what may have been the war’s deadliest day.
“Our troops are battling,” a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said Sunday night. “But the rebel forces still control several parts of the city.”
Chechens defending Freedom Square outside the Presidential Palace appeared in the television footage to have inflicted heavy casualties on the Russian assault forces. It was less clear whether many Chechen soldiers had died Sunday, but the fighting was so intense throughout the city that it seemed likely that the rebels’ losses also were substantial.
Life in the city is increasingly chaotic. Food and water supplies are gone, and men and women searched among exploding shells for sustenance. The bodies of civilians remain in roadways because it is too dangerous to attempt to retrieve or bury them. Dozens of doctors and nurses have been trapped for days in the city’s main hospital on Pervomayskaya Street, to the west of the town’s center.
Caught in the middle of a pitched battle with the main body of Russian forces on one side and Chechens on the other, the hospital was hit repeatedly Sunday by shells and grenades.
Russian troops tried and failed three times Saturday night to capture the Presidential Palace, Russian television reported. Pictures from the city showed continuous fires and explosions.
In Moscow, which is celebrating the long Christmas weekend, there was official silence on Sunday, and President Boris N. Yeltsin made no appearances. He excused himself from attending Russian Orthodox Christmas ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday, saying he had to “work on economic reform.”
Yeltsin has been criticized by almost every liberal political leader who once supported him. Most experts say he has thrown in his lot with the hardest-line elements in Russian society - the military and internal security forces.
But the criticism of the government continued Sunday even from those who officially support the crackdown in Chechnya.
“We are now not only fighting the bandit groups but the general population,” said Yevgeny Podkolzin, the commander of Russia’s paratroopers, which are playing a major role in the fighting in Chechnya. “The political leadership is to blame, because nobody can figure out who is fighting on whose side. I think the head of state had to make an address before the conflict began, not two weeks later, when the blood was spilled and hundreds were dead.”
He joined other leading military figures in Russia who have criticized Yeltsin’s actions since the attack on Chechnya began, contending that the assault was botched from the beginning and that the objective never has been made clear.
It is not known how much longer the Chechen rebels can hold out against the army, which outnumbers them heavily.
Grozny is one of Russia’s most industrialized cities. Oil fires now burn continually there, chemical storage facilities are threatened, ground water in the region has been polluted and the transportation system has been destroyed.