Warning Chechens to surrender “or be destroyed without mercy,” Russian forces pressed deeper into rebel-held sections of this city Friday as secessionist fighters regrouped in its southern stretches.
A thick blanket of snow covering the bombed-out city muffled all but the pounding of artillery and the Russian warnings, which were broadcast by loudspeakers mounted on helicopters.
Though the fighting continued in several areas, it was unusually still among the collapsing, burned-out buildings in the city center, where Russian forces captured the presidential palace on Thursday.
A day after rebels fled the wrecked shell of the palace, a symbol of Chechen resistance that they had defended for weeks, many residents and fighters elsewhere in the city sounded alternately surly and despondent. Denial shifted to anger over the setback, which, however inevitable, many people in the rebel capital had not allowed themselves to imagine.
At a sidewalk market, a gnarled, middle-aged man shouted at women to stop talking to reporters and waved a grenade to show he meant business. An elderly Chechen claimed that he had taken 20 Russian soldiers prisoner and promised, “For every rocket volley, I will cut off one of their heads.”
The leader of the Chechnya region, Dzhokhar Dudayev, also sounded a defiant note, declaring from his hiding place outside the capital that his fighters’ resolve had only hardened.
“The situation is that the Chechen people are getting used to the bombing, rocketing, and missile attacks - they frighten nobody, not even the children,” he said. “They are preparing to send back the grief from where it came.”
Dressed in combat fatigues, the former Soviet Air Force general also claimed he had contacted several heads of state, including President Clinton, and warned them of “the danger of nuclear weapons in Chechnya.”
He did not elaborate. No nuclear weapons have ever been deployed by the Russians in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region of 1.2 million people in the Caucasus Mountains.
There was no mood of victory among the Russian troops at roadblock checkpoints south of Grozny as edgy soldiers checked cars.
“You think this war is over?” said a weary, scornful officer in the Russian riot police who would only give his first name, Valery. “It’s just starting. There’s going to be guerrilla war all over the place.”