Russians Shell Chechen Capital; Palace Rocketed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A rocket slammed into the presidential palace of Chechnya on Thursday after a day of Russian shelling of this rebel capital and air raids on nearby villages. But the green Chechen flag flew defiantly as the city braced for an expected new assault by Russian troops.

The seventh and eighth floors of Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev's 10-story palace burst into flames after the attack at dusk. No casualties were reported; only the basement and first floor were occupied, by Chechen defenders and the wounded from both sides.

Chechen witnesses said the rocket apparently came from a Russian warplane, but that could not be confirmed. The besieged city, 1,000 miles south of Moscow, had been pounded all day by rockets from ground-based artillery.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported a bombing raid aimed at Grozny's oil storage tanks but gave no details. The Russian government denied aerial bombing anywhere in the city.

The barrage came a day after Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, for the second time in a week, ordered a halt to air attacks on Grozny. Whether or not the Russian air force had again defied that order, the attacks appeared to undermine Yeltsin's stated reason for it--a desire to spare civilians.

Refugees fleeing Shali, where at least 55 people were killed by cluster bombs Tuesday, said the farm town 18 miles southeast of here had been bombed again from the air at 6 a.m. Thursday.

Another series of explosions rocked the area southwest of Grozny at 11 a.m., and there were reports of more bombings in Pervomayskaya and several other suburbs.

The Russian government confirmed air attacks outside Grozny on what it called "Dudayev strongholds, troops and armor."

Russia's human rights commissioner, Sergei A. Kovalyev, arrived in Moscow from Grozny accusing his government of "gigantic lies" and "massive" human rights violations. He said he was to meet with Yeltsin today "to look the president in the eye and ask him . . . if he really understands what is happening."

As Parliament prepared for an emergency session on the Chechen war, Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov called for early presidential elections to dump Yeltsin.

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Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians and fighters have been killed since Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 in a so-far frustrated campaign to crush this tiny Muslim republic's self-declared independence. The Red Cross estimates that 350,000 people, a third of the Chechen population, are refugees.

Still, Chechen morale is high. Nearly every man, woman and child still in Grozny, a city of 400,000 people before the war, insists they are ready to fight to the death to repel the Russians.

"We have enough ammunition for three years," said Chechen commander Rezon Nurkayev, patrolling the shell-cratered streets around the presidential palace with a group of heavily armed men. One carried a quiver of arrow-shaped grenade launchers on his back as if ready to spear the expected attackers.

"Yesterday the Russians said they're bringing in KGB troops and special forces. Let them come," Nurkayev said. "We'll take care of them."

Dudayev's irregulars, numbering no more than a few thousand, drove back a massive New Year's tank assault on the center of Grozny. Expectations of a new attack grew after Nikolai D. Yegorov, a deputy prime minister directly involved in Russian military planning, announced Thursday that Grozny would be under the Kremlin's control by nightfall.

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Aivars Lezhinsh, a Russian lawmaker in Ingushetia, also said Russian troops were massing for "another attempt to storm Grozny." But he said that Dudayev's forces were, in the meantime, restoring their control of the city--despite Russian claims to have killed 100 Chechens in fighting Thursday.

"Let them come in and pick up their corpses," said Chechen fighter Ibragim Movdan. "The dogs are eating them."

The Chechens said they have twice offered a temporary cease-fire to give both sides time to bury their dead. They said the Russians, still trying to conceal from the public the scale of their losses during the New Year's assault, have refused.

"They call us 'criminal gangs.' But we are just standing up for our people," said Ruslan Badrudinov, a 31-year-old baker who lives in Moscow but returned on the eve of the Russian invasion to defend his native Chechnya.

Thursday, Badrudinov sauntered across Khrushchev Square with a Kalashnikov rifle, a fisherman's vest stuffed full of grenades and automatic rifle cartridges and an ornate silver dagger stuck into his belt.

But a tour of the battered capital showed just how high a price the Chechens have paid for their resistance. The glass- and rubble- strewn city had no water, heat or electricity. Not one of the city's hospitals has escaped unscathed.

In one residential neighborhood, a ruptured gas line was burning out of control. A black column of smoke rose from an oil refinery struck by Russian bombers a week ago.

A sign on one of the streets leading to the presidential palace read, "Welcome to Hell."

Residents appeared exhausted from spending night after night in their basements as the Russian air raids alternated with artillery barrages aimed at wearing down their resistance.

"The little children climb under the couch in terror every time they hear a plane," said Marina Kitayeva, an ethnic Armenian who took advantage of a brief lull in the fighting to sell cigarettes and chocolate on the street corner.

Kitayeva greeted Yeltsin's promise to halt the bombing at midnight Wednesday with rage and scorn. "Every time he says on the radio that they're not going to bomb us, that means there's sure to be another air raid," she said.

Malika Edilova, 40, said that after hearing Yeltsin's statement, her husband emerged from their basement shelter about half an hour after midnight--and was nearly killed by an explosion that felled their plum tree and broke all the windows in their courtyard.

With no running water, Edilova had been surviving on melted snow, but now the snow has vanished into a thick and miserable mud through which she must carry pails of water from a faraway well.

"Please, tell them not to kill us," she said, then bowed her head in shame at her unexpected tears.

The terror and suffering of the last four weeks seem only to have hardened the fierce stubbornness of the Chechen people, who fought the Russian czars for nearly 300 years, battled the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and died by the tens of thousands when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported them en masse in 1944.

Not a tear was shed at a cemetery a few miles south of the city where about 100 men gathered to bury Osiman Gilayev, a 22-year-old Chechen fighter blown in half by a mortar while fighting the Russians for control of the railway station a day earlier.

Instead, the mourners vowed revenge, Chechen style. Visit Bastukaysev, a rich businessman before the war, said he had sold his new Volvo to buy carbines fitted with telescopic lenses--the ideal weapon for sniping at Russian "occupiers."

Saikan Alikhanov said he and his contacts had been bribing Russian air force commanders to give them the addresses of the Russian pilots who had performed bombing raids over Chechnya--and calmly promised to track down the aviators or their families and kill them.

And 73-year-old Shakhit Gilayev, the dead fighter's father, said he still has four more sons. "We will fight to the end," he said.

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Moscow contributed to this report.

* MILITARY WEAKNESS: Chechnya shows Russian army is not what it seems. A10

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