Russia says its troops kill Chechen rebels trying to flee

Posted: Monday, February 07, 2000

URUS-MARTAN, Russia - With Russia declaring victory in its battle for Grozny, Russian troops killed rebels trying to break out of a village near the Chechen capital and flee to strongholds in the southern mountains, the Defense Ministry said today.

The militants commandeered about 15 trucks from residents of Gekhi-Chu, a village about 15 miles southwest of Grozny. But they were destroyed by Russian forces when they left the village, said a ministry spokesman.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to acting President Vladimir Putin, said today that the Russian forces had also intercepted militants near the villages of Katyr-Yurt and Shaami-Yurt southwest of the Chechen capital and killed about 300 in the last two days.

That statement echoed comments earlier today by a Defense Ministry spokesman, who said Russian troops came across 307 rebel corpses near Katyr-Yurt after shelling it Sunday.

The reports of casualties came a day after Putin declared victory in Russia's drive to take Grozny. He said troops had seized the last of the rebels' strongholds in the city.

Putin's claim was impossible to verify. Federal forces have repeatedly claimed success in taking parts of Grozny, a major political prize, only to lose their hold after rebel ambushes and counterattacks.

In an interview published today in a Spanish newspaper, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said Chechen forces who left Grozny will eventually recapture the city.

``For the time being we have given up the city. We will conquer it later,'' Maskhadov was quoted as saying by La Vanguardia, a Barcelona daily.

The Chechen leader said the bulk of his forces had left the city in two groups, one of 2,000 fighters that got out safely and another of 300-400 that ran into a minefield and suffered casualties. He did not specify how many.

Maskhadov said small groups of rebels who did not want to leave may remain in Grozny. He said most Chechen forces have withdrawn to the mountains of southern Chechnya, where thousands more are believed to be based.

``Now we enter a phase of guerrilla war,'' Maskhadov was quoted as saying.

Authorities, meanwhile, were moving ahead today to restore services in Grozny, including establishing humanitarian aid operations for civilians who had hidden in basements in the shattered capital for five months.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said the troops that had taken Grozny were being rotated out ``for a brief rest,'' the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Fighting could be heard overnight in and around Gekhi-Chu and neighboring villages, which federal troops had tried to seal off to prevent rebels from escaping south.

According to local residents, about 2,000 rebels who had fled Grozny arrived Saturday night in Gekhi-Chu and two neighboring villages.

The rebels' flight toward the southern mountains did not spell the end to the conflict. The militants appear to have firm control of several regions in the south, and have threatened to conduct a guerrilla war against the Russians.

Yastrzhembsky estimated the number of rebels now hiding in the southern mountains at between 5,000 and 8,000.

Russian jets and helicopters flew 60 missions over the past 24 hours, launching strikes against the Argun and Vedeno gorges in the south, the military said today.

Interfax also reported today that Russia had removed 150 troops and four armored vehicles from combat operations in Chechnya. After Russian troops took control of Grozny, Moscow said it would begin reducing its military presence in Chechnya.

Russian troops entered Chechnya in September after an invasion by Chechen-based militants into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, and deadly apartment bombings elsewhere in Russia that were blamed on Chechens.

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