Western news agencies reported more than a hundred Russian casualties in a clash between Russian forces and Chechen fighters in Grozny last night. But Russian military officials deny that any Russian armored column entered the city. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato reports.
London, 16 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Has the Russian Army suffered the worst defeat since its forces entered Chechnya, just at the eve of a parliamentary vote that is going to be heavily influenced by the military operation in Chechnya?
Analysts and commentators are asking themselves this question today, following Western news agency reports that Russian troops in Grozny last night suffered around 100 dead and were driven back by Chechen guerrillas.
These news reports prompted furious denials by senior Russian military officials. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, calling the reports a "provocation," told Interfax news agency that "there was and will be n-o storming of Grozny."
The Reuters (British) and Associated Press (U.S.) agencies said seven tanks and eight armored personnel carriers were ambushed by around 2,000 rebels in Grozny's central Minutka Square, some three kilometers from the city center. Reports said the Chechens attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
A Reuters reporter on the scene said she saw dozens of Russian soldiers lying dead. She added that the Russian armored column had advanced deep into Grozny from the direction of Khankala. That is the site of Grozny's military airport, occupied by Russian troops at the weekend. The column had almost reached the central Minutka district before turning back, when it was attacked.
The reports say that hundreds of Chechen defenders of Grozny, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, surrounded the column on the vast square.
An Associated Press reporter said the tanks, caught out in the open on the square, were hit by rebel fire from all directions. Infantry in the lightly-armored personnel carriers were mowed down as their vehicles burst into flames.
The AP reporter counted the bodies of 115 Russian soldiers, many of them badly burned. Meanwhile, the reports said, Chechen casualties appeared to have been light. Chechen commanders have claimed at least 220 casualties among Russian soldiers.
An RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent in the region (Andrei Babitsky) confirmed the attack but had no details about casualties.
The battle began yesterday evening and lasted around three hours, until 23:00 local time. Russian forces then shelled Grozny through the night. The shelling is reported to continue today.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, senior Russian military commanders denied there had been any attack on Grozny. They suggested the reports were disinformation, possibly calculated to influence Sunday's parliamentary elections.
The first deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Manilov, denied the reports in comments carried on the Russian television channel NTV.
"I would separate the wheat from the chaff. It's not information. It's disinformation. The shelling of a tank column never happened because there was no tank column, or any armored column, going to Minutka Square in Grozny. And we had no plans to conduct such actions. We have repeated that on many occasions. This disinformation has apparently been spread by sources in terrorist and bandit formations. The respectable news agency Reuters, I think, was misled by those who bring information and unfortunately this information has been spread."
The event marks the first time Russian armored forces have tried to move into Grozny since federal troops encircled the battered city last month. Grozny is still greatly damaged from the disastrous 1994-96 conflict. The reaction of top military commanders in Moscow could indicate their fear that clashes that leave heavy Russian casualties could stir up grim memories of the earlier Chechen war among Russia's voters ahead of Sunday's parliamentary election.
In that earlier conflict, some of the worst fighting took place in the first weeks of the war, when Russian troops attacked Grozny. Hundreds of inexperienced Russian conscripts were killed.
This war, unlike the last one, has so far been popular among the Russian public and has dramatically boosted the popularity ratings of both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and of Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is also the leader of the pro-government Unity (Edinstvo) bloc.
The latest polls show that support for Unity -- a bloc created just at the eve of the elections as a kind of echo of the previous "party of power" -- has surged, by some accounts, above 20 percent in the past few days. Meanwhile, support for Fatherland-All Russia, the bloc led by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, dipped under 10 percent, with the Communists at around 18 percent.
Russian media coverage of the Chechnya operation so far has stayed close to the government position, and today they played down last night's events. They mentioned the Western news agencies reports, but gave a prominent role to the Russian officials' denials.
However, an independent Internet news service (www.lenta.ru) quotes the commercial Military Information Agency (www.miliarynews.ru) as, in effect, confirming that the clashes took place. The agency started reporting this past summer, when Chechen guerrillas attacked villages in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. Initially the Military Information Agency was close to the Russian Defense Ministry, but more recently, it has begun working on a commercial basis and its affiliation is now less clear.
The Military Information Agency quoted unnamed military sources in the Russian Army's Caucasus headquarters in Mozdok as acknowledging the clashes in Grozny last night. However, it put the number of Russian casualties at 50 -- half the number Western agencies reported.
According to the unnamed source, the armored column entering Grozny was not part of an attempt to step up Russian attacks on the city ahead of a storm, but was simply on a reconnaissance mission.