The seesaw battle for central Grozny intensified Sunday, with Chechen rebels claiming to have recaptured the railway station, central market and two key government buildings.
But the focus of Moscow’s attacks widened to encompass villages in the countryside - particularly Bamut, strategically located between the capital and the mountains to the southwest.
Chechen rebels have vowed to regroup in the hills if the Russians capture Grozny, capital of the tiny southern region of Chechnya that is fighting for independence from Russia.
The Russians pounded Bamut on Sunday, firing missiles and artillery shells non-stop for nearly an hour. Helicopters launched rocket attacks on Bamut and the nearby village of Samashki.
After two days of relative calm in Grozny, artillery and small-arms fire periodically rang out from the fog that hung over the city. A light snow fell, and the temperature hovered near 9 degrees. No jets or helicopters could be heard.
Russian artillery concentrated on Grozny’s southern suburbs and on Chechen positions beyond the Sunzha River running through town. Mortar rounds pounded the streets near the railroad station.
Chechens’ claims that they had recaptured the railway station, central market and government buildings could not be confirmed immediately. It was clear that neither side controlled the city center, devastated in three weeks of ground fighting and by air attacks that began more than a month ago.
In Grozny, many civilians left in the city are ethnic Russians who, unlike Chechens with relatives in the countryside, have nowhere to go. Most have expressed solidarity with their Chechen neighbors, but many quietly are beginning to complain about their worsening treatment.
“Chechens come and take whatever they want from our houses, telling us that if we tell anyone about this, they’ll kill us,” said a tearful Yelena Dobrolovskaya, 58. “They can kill us and nobody would know about it. Look how many dead bodies lie on the ground all over the city.”
Early Sunday, rebels launched a two-hour assault on the ruined presidential building, which they had abandoned Thursday. They pulled back amid heavy Russian counterfire.
Both sides say Chechen snipers remain in the upper floors of the palace, now a blackened hulk.
“The Russians won’t be able to keep any buildings for long because our guys can show up anywhere they want,” said 26-year-old fighter Akhmed Papiyev, clad in white winter camouflage. “We’ll attack them head-on and from behind.”
In the fighting around Bamut, there was no indication that Russian soldiers were attempting to seize the town, 30 miles southwest of Grozny and site of a former Soviet military base.