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Russia Pounds Chechen Capital From the Air : Caucasus: Grozny streets are strewn with bodies of Moscow’s soldiers. But warplanes continue bombing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thwarted in their assault on this rebel Chechen capital, frustrated Russian forces reverted Tuesday to relentless aerial bombardment of the city, its outlying roads and village marketplaces.

As the few remaining Russian tanks in Grozny tried to shoot their way out, warplanes bombed a crowded open-air market in the village of Shali, leaving several people dead, witnesses said. At least two tank rounds hit the presidential palace in downtown Grozny.

Russian corpses littered the capital’s streets, and jubilant Chechen soldiers did a traditional war dance, stamping and clapping even as the shelling continued.

The Russian army sent at least 13,000 troops and hundreds of tanks into this tiny, oil-rich Muslim republic Dec. 11 in an attempt to crush its 3-year-old independence bid. With the army’s New Year’s assault on Grozny a clear failure, “they’re going to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb and bomb,” said Chechen Information Minister Movlady Udugov. “The only thing left to them is to destroy everything from the air.”

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Residents said Tuesday that the bombing and shelling had continued unabated for nearly 48 hours. A pall of smoke hung over the city, darkening with each new explosion.

Russian military officials said they were sending in reinforcements to push forward the attack on Grozny, 1,000 miles south of Moscow. Repeated air assaults on the last open road from Grozny, southeast to Dagestan, appeared to indicate Russian plans to move in from that direction.

“We’re waiting for them to come in here,” said Khasan Rasayev, a Chechen fighter lingering with several comrades by the road in southern Grozny.

“They’ll be coming from new directions, but they’ll still never get out alive,” said fellow rebel Ruslan Charayev.

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The extent of the debacle suffered by the ill-prepared invaders was becoming more evident. Witnesses reported counting more than 400 corpses of Russian soldiers in the capital and at least 150 disabled tanks and armored personnel carriers.

“The corpses of Russian soldiers are lying everywhere,” Udugov said. “It’s impossible to collect them.”

Chechnya was holding at least 100 Russian soldiers prisoner, according to Russian lawmakers allowed to visit them. Moscow claimed its forces were holding 60 prisoners, about half of them mercenaries from Afghanistan and Jordan.

After such a disaster in close-range combat, Russia’s military leadership appeared content to take its shots from afar for the time being--in long-range shelling and air attacks.

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It remained unclear whether the Russian troops were purposely attacking civilian sites despite President Boris N. Yeltsin’s order that they hit only military targets.

But most of the damage was civilian. Nearly a square block of one-story houses was blown up Monday night in southern Grozny, witnesses said. And on Tuesday, bombers had hit three open-air markets in two days--one in Shali, one in the village of Chechen-Aul and one on the crossroads to the besieged town of Argun.

Such markets are little more than a dozen or two metal stalls at which vendors hawk oranges or cigarettes. Aside from the occasional group of Chechen fighters who stop for snacks, they have no conceivable military significance.

In Washington, the Clinton Administration stuck to its policy of cautious, qualified public support for Yeltsin. “This is clearly a difficult domestic matter for the Russian government,” said State Department spokesman Mike McCurry. “It has certainly put President Yeltsin in the midst of a controversy, but they are dealing with it as democracy should, by having a full, open debate.”

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At the same time, McCurry seemed to imply that Russia has been using unnecessary force in its bid to regain control of Chechnya.

“We have expressed specific concern, dating back to last week and over the weekend as well, about the kinds of tactics that the Russians have been using, which have led to many more deaths than we think should have occurred,” McCurry said.

Many Chechens believe that the Russians are repeating the tactics that ultimately brought the rebellious region to heel after decades of warfare in the mid-19th Century. When the czarist army found itself repeatedly stymied by the fierce, canny Chechen fighters, it resorted to a “scorched earth” policy, burning harvests and villages until the exhausted Chechens finally surrendered.

“Their tactics are to destroy the civilian population, villages and cities, all the infrastructure, factories and highways,” Udugov said.

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In fact, the Kremlin may have little choice for now. If it still plans to storm Grozny, the Russian army must make doubly sure that it can throw such massive force into the city that the offensive cannot fail. Preparing for that crucial operation will take time, and the bombing meanwhile keeps up pressure on Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev, who spearheaded the mountainous republic’s drive for independence in 1991.

Not that pressure on Dudayev seems to be working. The former Soviet air force general, filmed in uniform Monday for Chechen television at an undisclosed bunker, appealed to Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin for “high-level” peace talks.

Dudayev said that Russian forces struggling to leave Grozny would be allowed to do so peacefully if Chernomyrdin answered his appeal, which was rebroadcast on Russian television Tuesday night.

“We still hope the Russian leadership will display reason in saving the lives of those who are now surrounded,” Dudayev said. “The storming of Grozny has been a catastrophe for the attackers and a tragedy for the defenders.”

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A group of Russian lawmakers who have been in Grozny since the dispatch of Russian troops urged the Kremlin to accept Dudayev’s offer. “The natural condition is the withdrawal of Russian troops from Grozny,” their statement said.

The Kremlin has rejected earlier Dudayev peace proposals because they were conditioned upon such a withdrawal, and it has not responded at all to his most recent appeals for talks. Yeltsin spokesman Vyacheslav A. Kostikov said that Moscow does not trust Dudayev as a representative of his people.

Anti-war forces in Moscow warned Tuesday that the Chechen conflict may have unforeseen consequences in an already wobbly Kremlin. Former Deputy Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar called the siege of Grozny a “massive military crime” and said the possibility that an authoritarian military regime will emerge in Moscow is greater than at any time since the brief 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Another member of Parliament, Alexander A. Osovtsov, returned from Grozny and told reporters that the mood among Russian troops there was a “mix of panic, hysteria, apathy and dejection.” He said some Russian POWs held there did not even know where or against whom they had been fighting.

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Thirty mothers of Russian soldiers, barred from Red Square, held an anti-war rally nearby.

The Kremlin continued to issue press bulletins at odds with reality on the ground, saying that Russian troops had “seized the initiative” Tuesday and were “expanding their control” over Grozny. Eight truckloads of Chechen weapons were destroyed, it said.

An anchorman on “Vesti,” the Russian television news program, mocked the bulletins before reading them. “What you are about to hear will not exactly coincide with what you see on this program,” he said. “The government statements were prepared in Moscow while the film was shot in Grozny.”

Battered by the broadest criticism of his 3 1/2-year presidency, Yeltsin appeared to be faced with a choice between pressing for a victory at the cost of thousands of lives or acknowledging defeat at the hands of a republic of about 1.2 million people.

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Viktor Ilyushin, one of Yeltsin’s closest aides, said the president “simply has no other solution except to go all the way, to the end.”

Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Moscow and Jim Mann in Washington contributed to this report.


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