Final sweep tempts Russia; General says advance into mountains will end Chechen war; Rebels could plan a trap; Grozny residents flee to dubious protection of government forces


MOSCOW -- The heaviest bombardment of the war rained onto Grozny yesterday, as a Russian general said his forces were about to open a new and presumably final phase of the fighting in Chechnya.

Gen. Valery Manilov talked of pursuing Chechen rebels into the mountains and wrapping up the war before New Year's.

Until now Russian tactics have met with success and federal forces have penetrated deep into the breakaway republic without having to fight a pitched battle. There's a full-speed-ahead mood in Moscow.

But what lies next for Russian soldiers -- and for those civilians unlucky enough to be in their path -- might not look nothing like the clean stroke of victory that Manilov depicts.

Military journalists here still expect that Chechen fighters, having bided their time, will find the resources to spring a trap on advancing Russian troops or begin a guerrilla campaign behind them.

For civilians, contact with Russian soldiers in the uneasy and volatile "liberated" zone of Chechnya is likely to mean more good-bad treatment -- looting, kindness, random violence, humanitarian aid, outright murder.

Hundreds of residents fled what's left of the Chechen capital, Grozny, yesterday, waving white flags so that Russian forces on the surrounding heights would hold their fire.

With their city in smoking ruins behind them, they were heading for the relative safety of Russian-held territory.

But there is no real security in the Caucasus. As winter closes in, the region is once more proving to be a scene of uncertain lines and terrifyingly unpredictable danger.

In the village of Sleptsovskaya, just outside Chechnya, where hundreds of refugees have camped, a group of apparently drunken soldiers demanded vodka from a young woman Thursday night; when she wouldn't comply, they killed her and shot two others.

Manilov, speaking at a news conference in Moscow yesterday, suggested that the killers might have been Chechens, but later in the day authorities arrested five soldiers serving with an Interior Ministry unit from St. Petersburg and turned them over to local police for prosecution.

What stands out in this case is not the action of the Russian soldiers, but that arrests were made. Going back to the first Chechen war, in 1994-1996, the constant fear of civilians was to run unexpectedly into soldiers who had been drinking.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that residents of three districts in Chechnya had reported widespread looting of their homes by Russian soldiers.

Houses have been stripped bare and farm animals seized. One woman was forced to hand over her coat to a soldier. The report said that soldiers, poorly provided for, are taking anything of value -- especially food and firewood, which they say they need to survive the winter.

At the same time, reports from Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, say that with Russian occupation, natural gas supplies have been restored and electricity should be available again soon. (The Russian electric utility, Unified Energy Systems, cut off all power to Chechnya earlier this fall.) Food is being distributed, and schools are reportedly being prepared to reopen.

But it's an unreliable picture of the region as a whole.

"Now it's quite clear that as winter approaches the lives of thousands of peaceful people depend not on the will of those who issue orders in Moscow," wrote Anna Politkovskaya in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, "but on those who carry them out."

She described pilots who bomb anyone moving in the target zone, and others who have dropped their bombs into rivers rather than destroy villages.

She wrote about a woman named Asya Astamirova, whose car came under fire by a group of Russian soldiers as she was taking the body of her husband home from a hospital. She and her 6-year-old son were wounded.

They were then rescued by another group of Russian soldiers -- younger ones -- who loaded the entire family into their armored vehicle and set off across fields, to avoid checkpoints, and back to the same hospital.

"It's a war," Politkovskaya wrote, "without rules."

The Chechen government says 4,000 civilians have been killed since the Russian assault on Chechnya began in September. And 200,000 have become refugees.

Manilov praised his men yesterday for minimizing civilian casualties and said the war would "secure a normal life for the Chechen people."

But they, too, know that danger lurks in the Caucasus. For all the bombardment, none of the main Chechen warlords has been taken or killed. Casualty statistics for Chechen fighters are unknown -- but apparently not very high. Groups of rebels are reliably reported to be operating behind Russian lines. The civilian population is sullen at best and generally hostile.

Russian authorities have officially reported 2,000 casualties among their men. The real figure might be significantly higher, and in any case far more serious fighting could yet erupt. For now, no one is safe -- or trustworthy.

Yesterday the president of the neighboring region of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, was quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta as saying that the Russian approach was like "taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut."

He accused Russian troops of selling humanitarian aid supplies and pocketing the proceeds.

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