The president of Chechnya, driven from his capital and into hiding by Russia’s two-month assault on the breakaway republic, said Friday that small bands of Chechen guerrillas are preparing counterattacks against military targets in Russian cities.
“We are giving notice: In the spring and summer, the war moves to Russian territory,” Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev said in an interview with The Times.
He ticked off targeted areas just across the Chechen border in southern Russia--"There’s Stavropol, there’s the Krasnodar region and the cities there; there’s Mineralniye Vody, Sochi, Kislovodsk, Pyatigorsk, Astrakhan. Our quick, maneuverable groups will quietly move in.”
The five-hour interview at the home of a supporter in this mostly deserted Chechen village lasted until 4 a.m. Over cups of thick yogurt and a Chechen meal of dark brown corn bread and boiled and buttered green onions, the leader of the tiny Muslim republic’s independence drive spoke of his war of resistance, his life on the run and his religious beliefs.
Dudayev was emphatic that his attack groups will not target Russian civilians and cannot be described as terrorists. But he was vague about how they planned to operate and what kind of military targets they would hit.
“We have in our hands a weapon more powerful than terrorism,” he said. “We are a state based on law. If there are pretensions against our statehood, we are prepared to discuss them, at the United Nations, or at the negotiating table with Russia. We are not obliged to resort to terrorism.”
He described Russia’s bombing of Chechnya, in which thousands of civilians have died, as a terrorist act condoned by the world.
“Russia is destroying us, and it’s called simply aggression,” he said. “But if we answer in kind on Russia’s territory, that’s what, terrorism? We Chechens can be murdered without punishment, as Russia is doing now, destroying us, and that’s a ‘normal’ sort of behavior. Yet if we were to adopt a similar tactic, and carry similar aggression to the enemy’s territory, then that would be considered terrorism.”
Dudayev insisted that Chechnya’s irregular army is unlikely to be reinforced by guerrillas from sympathetic Muslim countries of the Middle East, saying, “Russian ideologues have created that myth in people’s heads.”
By Dudayev’s estimate--impossible to confirm in the chaos of the conflict--27,000 Chechen civilians out of a population of about 1 million have been killed since about 40,000 Russian troops entered Chechnya on Dec. 11. Most of the civilians have died in the capital, Grozny, a city of 400,000 now reduced to about 100,000 by the bombing.
About 340 Chechen fighters have been killed and 400 wounded, he said. The estimate seems low, especially in light of Dudayev’s claim--no doubt exaggerated--of 18,000 Russian military casualties.
“Grozny is destroyed,” he said. “They didn’t leave one stone standing on another. It’s all ruined. What do we have left? We have left land scarred by rockets and bombs . . . and the skies over our head.”
Despite such terrible losses, Dudayev said he does not regret his insistence on independence from Moscow--first declared in 1991, ignored by the rest of the world but ratified over and over in the face of Russian hostility.
“The people would not have let me do anything different,” he said.
A team of Chechen lawyers is preparing a Nuremberg-style indictment for war crimes against Russia, Dudayev said. The Chechen government has also opened criminal charges against Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in retaliation for his government’s warrant for Dudayev’s arrest.
Despite mutual distrust, Russian and Chechen negotiators agreed Friday to extend a shaky 2-day-old cease-fire until Sunday and exchange prisoners today.
Dudayev said he authorized the talks, hoping that they would lead to a political settlement. But he doubted that Moscow was interested in one.
“This is all so that Yeltsin could speak before the Duma (Parliament) and say that a cease-fire has begun, and so deceive the world community into believing progress is being made,” he said.
Dudayev, a former Soviet air force bomber pilot, did not sound like a man whose army is being defeated, even though it was bombed out of his presidential palace a month ago and forced to pull its field headquarters out of Grozny last week.
“Now in Grozny . . . there are small (Chechen) groups,” he said. “Hundreds of groups of three, five, seven, 10 men--maneuverable, fast, mobile, that are spread around the Russian forces and beat at them every day and every night, where they are least expected.
“And we’re just getting started. In the spring and summer, when it will be possible to sleep outdoors, that will be for us a hunt,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “Not one Russian will emerge alive.”
Dudayev has suffered personal losses in the war.
His older son, Avlur, 23, was killed in combat last month, and his brother Bekmurza was reported Friday by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass to have been captured in Grozny. The Chechen leader’s wife, Alla, a 47-year-old painter and poet, and two other children--a son, 11, and a daughter, 21--have left Chechnya for temporary shelter in an undisclosed place.
It is not clear how seriously the Russians are pursuing Dudayev, but he has counted nine assassination attempts since he became president in 1991.
The latest, he said, came last month when the house he was staying in was shelled.
Friday he was hiding out in this village 10 miles south of Grozny, but he moves about frequently, often at night.
“I have forgotten what real sleep is like,” he said with a grin.
Despite the complaint and the late hour, he looked rested and his uniform was crisp. “I sleep where I fall. I eat whenever I see food. If I don’t see food, I never even think about it.”
February is Ramadan, Islam’s holy month. Dudayev said he and many of his soldiers keep a strict fast from sunrise to sunset.
“Since childhood I have been a deeply religious believer,” he said. “I am convinced that there are forces of creation, that there is a creator. A person who is not convinced in the existence of a creator is a stupid person. He’s on the level of an animal.”
Dudayev said his faith helped sustain him during 13 years in forced exile in Siberia, after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the Chechens en masse in 1944 for having supposedly collaborated earlier with the invading Nazis.
Dudayev lost his father and his birth certificate during exile and does not know his birthday. He believes he is 51 or 52 years old.
“People came to us, picked us up and threw us like dogs into a cattle car,” he said. “And then they threw us out in Siberia, where the temperature was minus 30 degrees, right onto the tracks, and we had to make a life for ourselves.”
When Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev allowed the Chechens to return home in 1957, Dudayev found work in Grozny as an electrician and went to night school.
Later, he joined the military, rising to the rank of air general before retiring to lead his republic.