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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 10:40 GMT
Eyewitness: Chechnya's bitter war
Chechnya wounded
It is estimated that up to 30 Russian soldiers die each week in Chechnya
By Rob Parsons in Grozny

In the bleak wreckage of the Chechen capital, Grozny, Russia is continuing its military operation against Chechen separatists.

The Russians say they have control of Grozny but there are almost daily reports of Russian soldiers killed in ambushes or by mines, and no sign of the quick military victory which Russia predicted earlier this year.

A Russian military helicopter banks and swerves violently - we're not under attack, it's just a precaution. We're flying over Grozny and present an easy target for Chechen rebels.

Grozny
Grozny has been devastated by war
I try to imagine what it must be like for a Russian soldier coming to Grozny for the first time.

This is how many would see the city, the throb of the helicopter engine, a wasteland of bomb-blasted buildings - perfect for snipers - swathes of overgrown woodland strewn with mines and booby traps.

In their minds perhaps, the thought of another 10 gut-churning minutes and "I'll be there"... maybe for ever.

We land at a Russian military barracks and clamber aboard an armoured personnel carrier for a high-speed tour of Grozny.

It is the closest the Russians are prepared to let foreign journalists to their war for control of Chechnya.

No night patrols

The soldiers are tense. A civilian car gets too close and is warned away at gunpoint.

Russia says it controls Chechnya, but it is the most nominal form of control. In Grozny there are no foot patrols, and at night no patrols whatsoever.

The troops disappear into their concrete bunkers and wait.

Russian tank
A Russian tank struggles through the snow
We come to a stop at a military checkpoint and slither off the armoured personnel carrier. When I last came to Grozny six months ago, the Russian military command was talking then about a quick military victory. That doesn't look like it's going to happen. Chechnya is resigning itself to a war of attrition.

At a mud-spattered market-place, our presence immediately draws a small crowd. For the soldiers with us, every Chechen is a potential enemy.

This isn't a war for hearts and minds. The aim is to cower people into submission and it doesn't seem to be working.

Some reports suggest Russian soldiers are dying in Chechnya at a rate of almost 30 a week.

One man who would not give his name said: "This is going to be a fight without end for the Russian soldiers. There's a hidden partisan war going on, and of course they pick on us.

"The biggest problem is the mines. Whenever there's an explosion, they round everybody up."

Sense of fear

The soldiers feel isolated and hated. Their only friends are the native Russians of Grozny, the few mostly elderly who have survived persecution by their Chechen neighbours.

Natalia Demitrovna is a pensioner. She passes her days at the Russian Orthodox Church. The suffering, she says, is God's punishment for man's sins.

"The soldiers share their rations with us," she says. "They give us a bit of soup or porridge and feed the old ones like me, and now that they're here, I've been getting my pension."

She doesn't criticise the Chechens, but you can sense her fear of them.

If the Russians were to go, she would be an easy target for victimisation.

Both sides are locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of violence and mutual hatred, and with no obvious end in sight.

The energy has drained from Russia's military campaign. But Moscow cannot accept the humiliation of a second withdrawal.

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See also:

10 Jul 00 | Europe
EU unfreezes Russian aid
16 Mar 00 | Europe
The Caucasus: Troubled borderland
17 Jan 00 | Europe
Chechnya making regional waves
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