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Thursday, 16 March, 2000, 15:05 GMT
The first bloody battle
Russia's first invasion of Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 ranks among the worst military engagements of the 20th century.

Some of the most savage scenes came in the first weeks of the war when Russian troops, already suffering from low morale attacked the capital Grozny.

While they eventually wrestled some form of control from the Chechens, the Russian people were left asking, at what cost?

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Moscow's ultimatum
Troops go in
Assault on the capital
The presidential palace falls
The final reckoning

Moscow's ultimatum

The invasion of Chechnya came after months of rising tension between the separatist territory and Moscow.

Chechnya's then president Dzhokhar Dudayev had consistently refused to toe the Kremlin line and Russian troops, already uneasy about the idea of invading a territory considered a part of Russia, had massed on the borders.

Moscow's first attempt to launch an assault on Grozny failed with disastrous consequences. Earlier in the year Moscow had started to fund and support Chechen elements prepared to attempt to overthrow President Dudayev.

These forces, eventually joined by Russian troops, launched a clandestine but badly organised attack on Grozny on 26 November 1994.

The Chechen forces, improvising their defence, repulsed the attack and succeeded in capturing some 20 Russian troops.

On 29 November, President Boris Yeltsin laid down an ultimatum to Chechnya: disarm and surrender. Grozny's government refused, President Yeltsin order the attack.

By 1 December, Russian forces were carrying out massive aerial bombardments of Chechnya, targeting both military sites and the capital Grozny.

It was to be the start of a bloody campaign.

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The troops go in

But the aerial bombardment failed to have the desired effect. Rather than capitulating to the clearly superior air power of Moscow, the Chechens dug in with tens of thousands of civilians taking to shelters.

Russian journalists also contradicted official reports of "precision bombing", reporting that the civilian population was being hit as often as military targets.

On 11 December 1994, President Yeltsin racheted up the campaign and sent in the thousands of troops.

President Dudayev declared war and predicted that Russia would meet fierce resistance. In Moscow, opposition to the move grew.

Chechen Foreign Minister Shamsedin Yusef said: "They cannot kill every Chechen. There are one million of us and every one of us will fight."

The bombings and artillery strikes were stepped up. Within two days of the order to send in the troops, fierce fighting had broken out across the breakaway republic.

Chechen rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers operated in small guerrilla units.

What they lacked in organisation and training they more than made up for in tenacity and improvisation, including mobilising entire villages to prevent the passage of tanks.

By day five of the offensive, both sides were showing significant losses and there were renewed hopes of peace talks.

But no such move came and, following the passing of another Russian deadline, Moscow ordered a massive bombardment of the capital - a precursor to the final push.

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The assault on the capital

The massive onslaught against the capital began on New Year's Eve 1994.Hundreds of tanks rolled into Grozny, a formidable show of strength.

But the following days proved to be a military catastrophe.

Small Chechen units used grenades to destroy lead tanks in narrow streets.

Following tanks became trapped and guerillas picked off the Russian soldiers one by one.

In one of the bloodiest episodes of the entire campaign, hundreds of Russian soldiers are believed to have lost their lives as they attempted to take control of the railway station.

At least 2,000 Russian soldiers are believed to have been killed in the first days of the battle.

By 1 January, the all-out assault had given way to soldiers fighting house by house. Helicopter gunships attacked neighbourhoods and jets bombed the parliament.

Western journalists, including BBC correspondents, reported that the Russian artillery was indiscriminately targeting civilian apartment blocks as the capital was rocked by the sheer power of the attack.

Realising that Russian forces were attempting to raze the city, Chechens struck back in the dead of night and by day three their leaders felt confident enough to declare the attack had been repulsed.

By 3 January the central Freedom Square had fallen quiet as Russian forces withdrew. All that appeared to be left was the bodies of the dead and the remains of burnt-out tanks.

The separatist green, red and white flag could still be seen flying over the presidential palace.

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The presidential palace falls
Regrouped and tactics reassessed, Russian forces returned.

Opting for a war of attrition, they launched yet more bombing raids of staggering ferocity, coupled with a policy of taking control of small city areas at a time.

The rebels refused to concede defeat and scored a major victory when Russia's Major-General Viktor Vorobyov was killed by a mortar shell.

Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl described the events as "sheer madness" and journalists reported appalling human rights abuses being carried out by both sides.

By the middle of the month Russia's Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin attempted to broker a ceasefire to allow the dead to be buried but transport planes continued to land reinforcements at the nearby Mozdok and Besian air bases.

The ceasefire collapsed and the battle for the palace recommenced.

On 19 January Russian forces, suffering heavy losses, seized the burnt-out palace, surrounded by other buildings in ruins.

While the Russian flag was hoisted aloft, fighting raged all around.

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The final reckoning

While Russia tightened its grip on Grozny in the coming weeks, the Chechens proved themselves to be far from defeated.

Russian military forces may have taken the key buildings in the capital but the battle for Grozny never really ended as the determined Chechen rebels reorganised again and again to keep up their guerilla attacks.

Russian soldiers, facing an enemy they often could not see and a civilian population who opposed them with equal zeal, became even more demoralised than they were before.

International monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe described the scenes as nothing short of an "unimaginable catastrophe" and they demanded a ceasefire.

One US military survey of the mistakes of the Chechen conflict reported that Russian soldiers had even taken to selling their arms to the rebels in exchange for alcohol.

By May 1995 Russian troops controlled some two-thirds of the Republic's territory and had captured the main towns.

But the Chechen rebels continued to use bases hidden in the mountain region and switched to terror tactics, launching raids on towns in Russia and neighbouring republics, taking local civilians hostage.

Unable to either crush or contain the rebels, Russia was forced into a humiliating peace deal which finally emerged in August 1996.

The troops who had entered the territory to keep it as part of the Russian Federation withdrew, leaving behind some 100,000 dead and a country turned to rubble.

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The BBC's Angus Roxburgh: "President Yeltsin's ultimatum ran out at first light" (1/12/94)
The BBC's Ben Brown: "The Russians moved at first light this morning" (11/12/94)
The BBC's Angus Roxburgh: "Bombs are falling ever closer to Grozny" (19/12/94)
The BBC's Ben Brown: "Chechens are fighting back with astonishing success" (2/1/95)
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen: "Twice the Russians claimed to have taken the palace"(19/01/95)

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