Fear, Gunfire Mark Failed Chechnya Truce
Even in the darkened basement that shelters 81-year-old Konstantin Kislenko, the thunder of nearby Russian artillery announced Tuesday that there was no cease-fire in Chechnya.
The Kremlin’s call for a 48-hour halt in the Russian offensive starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday brought a brief, eerie quiet to most sections of this bomb-shattered rebel capital and lured hundreds of underground dwellers into daylight in search of food and water.
But by noon the truce had collapsed.
Russian artillery and answering Chechen machine-gun fire sounded from the area around the presidential palace where exhausted defenders were holding off a 6-day-old Russian assault.
The unilateral cease-fire, ordered by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, was the first attempted since thousands of Russian troops and hundreds of tanks rolled into this tiny Muslim republic Dec. 11 to try to crush its self-declared independence. It was coupled with an appeal to the few thousand Chechen irregulars to surrender their weapons by Thursday morning.
A Chechen military official told the Russian news agency Interfax that his fighters had no intention of disarming.
Instead, they used the brief respite to pour fresh men and arms into the center of Grozny.
The Kremlin announced that Yeltsin’s appeal to the Chechens to disarm, to free about 80 Russian war prisoners and to accept an amnesty “has not been met with any kind of positive reaction.”
In urban war zones--where most residents do not know where the battle lines lie and where control of some blocks passes from Russian to Chechen forces by the hour--it was impossible to say who had begun shooting first.
“We didn’t even know about any cease-fire,” said Lecho Gikhayev, a 40-year-old Chechen fighter.
The Chechen and Russian snipers who were picking each other off from blasted-out buildings across the sprawling downtown also kept on shooting. They either had not heard the news, which was announced after midnight in Moscow, or simply did not care.
Grozny’s television sets have fallen silent since power was cut off in most of the capital weeks ago, and batteries to fuel transistor radios are a precious commodity. People seeking news mill about in central squares, where rumors and misinformation are hopelessly intertwined with the facts.
Moreover, Chechens are so disgusted by Yeltsin’s two previous broken promises to halt the bombing that has killed hundreds of civilians in Grozny that they dismissed the news of a cease-fire as meaningless.
“Nothing has changed,” said rebel Vakha Kitlayev, a bus driver before the war. “Today they announced a cease-fire, and they’re shooting anyway. As long as there are Russian soldiers here, there can be no truce.”
Chechnya’s interior minister, Kazbek Makhashev, said if Moscow wants to end the war, it will have to stop demanding that Chechen rebels lay down their weapons before negotiations.
The secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, Oleg I. Lobov, told reporters in Moscow that the cease-fire was “an attempt to put the disarmament process on a peaceful track.”
He called it a “historic opportunity” to stop the bloodshed and said the Kremlin now had no choice but to press ahead with its military campaign.
But Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, meeting with Chechen groups in Moscow, said a special group within his government was working on a plan “to resolve the Chechen conflict without the use of force.”
Chernomyrdin has emerged as a cautious dove in Yeltsin’s divided Kremlin but has no authority over the armed forces.
Fighting in Chechnya, which has taken thousands of lives and made nearly a third of the republic’s 1.2 million people refugees, was lighter Tuesday than on previous days.
By afternoon, the southern village of Alkhazurovo had not been attacked, despite a threat broadcast from Russian helicopters two days earlier to bomb it and four other settlements if about 50 Russian paratroopers captured nearby were not freed.
But Chechen fighters from Itumkali, 30 miles south of Grozny, said their village had been bombed Tuesday morning.
Although no Russian warplanes were seen over Grozny, many people were still afraid to venture far from their bomb shelters.
Under a pockmarked nine-story apartment building a quarter of a mile from the presidential palace, the octogenarian Kislenko and about 20 other Russian and Chechen civilians huddled in a basement jampacked with cots and lighted by two weak kerosene lamps.
At night and when fighting is heavy, up to 70 people cram into the shelter, wondering how long the bombardment of Grozny can last.
“Hey, how long have we been in here? I don’t know anymore,” a woman called out.
“Today is the 11th day,” came the answer.
Kislenko lay on a cot in the deepest corner of the shelter, where no light penetrated, alone with his angry thoughts. His 74-year-old wife had gone out to get food.
“Here I lie, neither alive nor dead, just thinking about that damned Yeltsin,” he said.
The bomb-shelter dwellers said two residents of the building, both women, had been killed by shrapnel. But the fierce bombing prevented neighbors from taking them to a cemetery, and there was no one to call for help. Outside in the courtyard, a small area had been cleared of rubble.
There stood two hastily dug graves, marked only by rough scraps of lumber that looked like bombed debris.
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Moscow contributed to this report.