The bloody siege of Grozny intensified Friday when Chechen rebels surrounded as many as 7,000 Russian troops who had been lured into the center of the devastated city and began to bombard them with grenades, mortars and automatic weapons fire.
The attack overshadowed festivities in Moscow, where an ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin labored stiffly through his inauguration and then departed for what aides said would be a long vacation.
The rebels, who began their attack on Tuesday with the clear intent of embarrassing Yeltsin, unleashed their fiercest assault yet in the secessionist capital, forcing Russian officials to evacuate some civilians from their main military bases at the region’s two airports, Severny and Khankala. Throughout the war, which began at the end of 1994, the Kremlin and leaders of the Russian army have always put the brightest possible spin on their situation. Friday they did not bother.
“The situation is totally out of control of the federal command,” a Russian military spokesman said Friday morning at the main military base at Khankala, about 15 miles east of Grozny. “Our units are totally surrounded in Grozny, and they are not even trying to attack the rebels, only trying to defend themselves.”
Although Russian officials said hundreds of soldiers had been killed in the four days of fighting, Chechen leaders put the figure far higher. There was no way accurately to assess the casualties Friday.
Information from the battlefield was sporadic, lurid and almost impossible to verify. Early in the evening there were reports that the Chechens were withdrawing from the center of the city. Later accounts suggested that the fighting had not diminished.
But by Friday afternoon Chechen separatists had surrounded the heavily fortified Severny airport five miles north of the city and were shelling it with mortar rounds.
Television showed only film of the acrid black smoke that hung above the city. Nobody was able to film the vicious battle for the central government buildings, in part because most journalists were trapped.
Movlodi Udugov, the Chechen separatist spokesman, announced that he had informed rebel commanders that they should open a corridor to let the trapped civilians out. But as of late Friday night they had not been freed.
The Chechen rebels, in an account that the Russian forces did not dispute, said they captured the main government house at 11:15 Friday morning - “almost at the exact time” that Yeltsin was taking the oath of office in Moscow, according to Udugov.
There were reports that the separatists were executing Russian prisoners and that Russian soldiers on the edge of Grozny were killing civilians who tried to leave their homes. Neither report could be confirmed.
Udugov said the separatist fighters now controlled the vast majority of the city, although a column of Russian tanks spent much of the day slowly working its way “meter by meter” toward the center of the city, according to an account by the Itar-Tass news. Reinforcements from other parts of the region are being rushed to the scene.
Russian jets and helicopters flew above the ruins of the city from dawn to dusk, but it was difficult for them to attack in the city because so many Russian troops are trapped there.
Although they have shocked the Russians by capturing Grozny and many other cities in the republic, the rebels lack the supply lines, the firepower or the troops to hold them. But holding Grozny is not their declared aim. What they have intended to do was remind Yeltsin - who bragged on his one, six-hour trip to the region two months ago that the Russians had “won the war” - that nothing was further from the truth.