Russian troops reportedly seized a key building in central Grozny Friday as exhausted Chechen fighters fell back under the most intense shelling and aerial attacks of the month-old war.
As of Thursday night, the presidential palace was still apparently in the hands of Chechen rebels, though it seemed likely the highly visible symbol of Chechen resistance would fall to the Russians over the weekend.
Meanwhile, emissaries of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin visited Chechnya Friday to begin establishing a Moscow-backed government to replace the regime of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev.
With seemingly endless columns of Russian troops and armor continuing to pour into the area, the loosely organized and lightly armed Chechen fighters finally seemed to be crumpling under the weight of relentless Russian attacks.
Western correspondents in Grozny said many rebels still fiercely defended the center of the Chechen capital - at great cost - but others were trickling out of the city to begin what is expected to be a guerrilla war against the Russian army.
Russian officials and military officers variously predicted that the rebels would be driven out of Grozny within several days to two weeks.
In Moscow, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, the Duma, overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution calling on Yeltsin to “take exhaustive measures to stop military action” in Chechnya and “create conditions for political regulation of the conflict.” The Duma also voted to set up a commission to investigate conduct of the war in Chechnya, which so far has been a debacle for the Russian military.
The Russian Defense Ministry reported Friday that Russian troops had seized the Chechen Council of Ministers building, a key facility next to the presidential palace. If true - and official Russian statements have often proven to be exaggerated - it would mean that Moscow’s forces are on the verge of seizing the bombedout palace itself, in which hundreds of Chechen fighters are holed up, many in underground bunkers.
The Defense Ministry reported that its troops “effectively have full control” of the center of Grozny and have surrounded Chechen fighters in key government buildings.
But even if the Russians take the entire central city, including the presidential palace, they will still likely face staunch resistance from rebels controlling the southern sector of the city.
Many of the areas under rebel control in the southern and western sections of Grozny were shelled heavily Friday. There were numerous airstrikes in the city, despite Russian claims to the contrary, Western reporters said.
Thousands of citizens, many of them elderly, ethnic Russians, remained in the city, most living in bomb shelters and suffering shortages of food and water.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops are believed to be involved in the attack on Grozny. A Russian military source told the Interfax news agency last night that a new column of 77 armored vehicles and 59 troop carriers was heading to Grozny from the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. Russian paratroops are being sent to Grozny from as far away as the Russian Far East, which borders the Pacific Ocean. Interfax reported Friday that detachments of marines from Russia’s Northern Fleet also were in action in the city.
Though the Russian army has released no reliable casualty figures, hundreds of soldiers are believed to have died so far, many in an ill-fated assault by largely green troops on New Year’s Eve.
Anticipating the fall of Grozny, Russian officials began talking about setting up a new Chechen government and rebuilding the capital, much of which has been reduced to rubble by the Russian army. Their assessments of how quickly Moscow can reassert control in Chechnya seem absurdly optimistic, since many Chechens have vowed to wage guerrilla war against any Kremlin-backed regime.
Yeltsin’s special envoy to Chechnya, Nikolai Yegorov, said Friday during a visit to Russian-controlled sections of the republic that Chechnya would remain an integral part of Russia. Under Dudayev, the republic declared independence in 1991, and last month Yeltsin finally decided to use military force to bring Chechnya back into the Russian fold.
Yegorev said Moscow had already started paying wages to some workers in Chechnya, rebuilding damaged rail lines and supplying Chechens with food and medicine. Sergei Stepashin, the head of Russia’s Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, was also in Chechnya, and said he had met with local leaders eager to rebuild the country and live peacefully with a new government.