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Wednesday, 15 December, 1999, 12:34 GMT
Q & A: Andrew Harding in Chechnya

BBC Moscow Correspondent Andrew Harding describes how civilians are surviving siege conditions in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

What impression are you getting from the refugees who've just come out of Grozny in the last day or two?

They're all in a pretty bad state. They've been through the most extraordinary experience in the last few weeks - many of them trapped in their basements and cellars hiding from the rockets and shells which have been landing, it seems, at random in the city.

Battle for the Caucasus
There's been very little food or water in Grozny and it's been too dangerous for them to come out of their shelters to look for it. There have also been no medical facilities, the hospitals have been shut, there's no electricity - there hasn't been for several months. Everyone I've spoken to who's managed to get out of the city has been in a state of extreme distress. A lot of them have said they've left people behind who have been too afraid to risk running the Russian gauntlet out of the city. Moscow has opened two humanitarian corridors and they are now being used, but people still do not trust them. And people complain that Russian soldiers at checkpoints often demand bribes or simply loot belongings from those escaping.

What will happen to the people still in Grozny who are too frightened to leave?

That's a very difficult question to answer. We don't know how many people are still trapped in Grozny. It could be many thousands. The Russians don't seem to be prepared at the moment to call a general cease-fire to allow, for example, the Red Cross to go in with buses to evacuate the elderly and wounded, or those in no condition to walk out or people who cannot afford to pay for transport out. It seems the Russians are continuing to shell the city but, though they are keeping guns away from the humanitarian corridors, that does not mean it is entirely safe for people to come out of their cellars and escape.

Is any aid at all getting to Grozny. I think the Halo Trust are operating there - are they able to help?

The Halo Trust is one of the very few humanitarian organisations which have been working in Chechnya throughout this period and for the last few years. They are, of course, clearing mines which is a huge problem - but not an immediate priority, for those inside. At the moment they need medical and food supplies above all, and no outside western aid has got through from Russia or anywhere else. Grozny has effectively been under siege now for at least a week and the Russians are tightening their grip on the city.

And what is the way forward now for the Russians?

The Russians are insisting they don't want to storm Grozny. They remember well the events of 1994 -'95, when they did try to storm the city, basically overnight, and they lost many, many hundreds of men. This time, I think they're trying to be more cautious. This time they're talking about using commandos, using Chechen fighters loyal to Moscow to take the city bit by bit. They're also trying to repeat what's basically been a Russian success in other towns across the Republic, where they've been able to persuade local people to talk to the fighters and get the fighters to leave of their own free will. That's just happened in the town of Shali, where the elders asked them to leave and they did. I think the Russians hope that could be repeated in Grozny, but there's no sign of that happening at the moment.

How many rebels are still holed up there? Do we know?

No we don't. 5,000 - 7,000 perhaps. Its almost impossible to say. Though the Russians have this city under blockade, it is not a cast iron wall that they built, and it is very easy for the rebels to bring men in and out of the city.

Will the election taking place on Sunday have any bearing on the military offensive in Chechnya?

I doubt it. Mr Putin, the Prime Minister is, it seems, supported in his military offensive by most of the political parties in Russia - not all of them - but generally the war seems still to be popular in Moscow and I suspect the elections won't change anything. If you like, it's a little bit the other way round - the war itself is influencing political events in Moscow, with the main party supported by the government benefiting from what's perceived as a successful war. The Emergency minister Sergei Shoigu who leads that party has had a very high profile and some cynics would say he's benefited rather well from the war.

Back to the refugees in the miles of tented cities around where you are in Nazran. Are the aid agencies there able to help them?

There's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the refugees at the moment. There are still a considerable number in tented cities in Ingushetia, the neighbouring Republic to Chechnya, but there are also a lot of refugees returning, not to Grozny but to other parts of Chechnya - those areas which have already been occupied or liberated by Russian forces. The situation in Ingushetia is not good. There has been overcrowding, it's damp and people are, we understand, becoming increasingly sick as the winter closes in. But the conditions are bearable I think and international help has begun to arrive.

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14 Dec 99 |  Europe
Battle rages for Grozny
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