MOSCOW -- After four days of trying, Russian troops reached yesterday a convoy of crack police commandos who had been caught in a Chechen mountain ambush. They were much too late. Rebels had killed at least 32 commandos and delivered a potentially wounding blow to Russia's newly elected president.
Vladimir V. Putin easily won election as president last Sunday, owing much of his popularity to the Chechen war. He promised victory and a strong, new Russia.
On Wednesday morning, the commandos were attacked. By Thursday, word was out that six men in the convoy had escaped and 32 or more were missing. Russia has 80,000 troops deployed in Chechnya -- against an estimated 3,400 rebels -- and none could reach the commandos.
During the election campaign, television news relentlessly portrayed Putin as a strong, energetic commander in chief. Last night, he began to look different. One station followed somber and extensive news on the fate of the commandos with a cheerful report on Putin -- skiing, as if free of care, near Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains.
Putin has told the nation that his mission in life is to subdue the rebellious republic. Russian generals have declared the war in Chechnya largely won. What happened to the commandos casts doubts on that assertion.
The commandos, known as OMON, all came from the Urals, from the city of Perm. They left Perm on Feb. 12, and film of their departure was played on television last night.
They stood in a gently falling snow at the train station, big, grizzled officers laughing reassuringly, folding a daughter into a bearhug, giving a tearful wife a kiss goodbye. A determinedly brave young man looked at the camera, smiled and gave a plucky thumbs-up.
They said their farewells, and next to them, rolling down the screen, were the names of the dead.
On Wednesday, the commandos were making a short trip between two mountain villages. Near the village of Zhani-Vedeno, rebels hidden above set fire to the lead vehicle, an armored personnel carrier, and the last one, trapping their prey in between.
Within three hours reinforcements had approached. They were ambushed and forced to retreat.
It was difficult to expect anything but the worst. In the past month, Chechen fighters had trapped and killed 85 paratroopers in another mountain gorge. In an earlier ambush, they had killed 20 OMON commandos.
Both incidents were traumatic, but at the time they had seemed exceptions, and the dead men were officially declared heroes. Now the series of attacks looks to have a pattern, and officials are talking about blame and complacency, not heroism.
In a news conference in Moscow, Valery L. Manilov, armed forces deputy chief of staff, said the lessons of the earlier attack on the Sergiyev Posad OMON had been ignored.
He blamed last week's debacle on violation of basic "textbook procedures."
"The unit set off on a trip without reconnoitering the route, without cover on strategic heights along the route, without an escort and without aircraft and artillery observers," he said.
Manilov said about 3,400 rebels operate in Chechnya, with 1,000 of them in the mountains surrounding the site of the recent attack. He said about 400 remain in Grozny, operating at night, though Russian troops have held the wrecked city for weeks.
Manilov refused to describe the series of engagements as a guerrilla war.
"I have already said that there is no danger of a guerrilla war," he said. "These are not terminological tricks. It can't exist in principle because the population of Chechnya, even in the mountains, does not support bandits and terrorists.
"They have no social base. This is why we can speak only of dangerous subversive and terrorists acts, which we must foresee and prevent. We can't relax. We must remain vigilant."
Yesterday, however, Mary Robinson, the United Nations human rights commissioner, was hearing a different assessment from Chechen refugees.
Until now, Russia has refused to allow Western officials to visit Chechnya despite numerous requests to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, including rape, murder and looting.
Robinson, former president of Ireland, was allowed in yesterday, visiting camps in Ingushetia, bordering Chechnya, before flying into Grozny by helicopter today.
Television reports showed her surrounded by refugees, many of them women with children. Some chanted "Aslan, Aslan" for Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president who is leading a group of rebels in the mountains.
"I am deeply struck by the dire situation of people living in these camps," Robinson said.
"I am saddened that things are so difficult and painful for them and am deeply concerned that, based on what was said by the women I met, Russian servicemen are violating human rights."