Chechnya Celebrates As Fighting Continues

GROZNY -- In a victory celebration that bordered on the surreal, Russian forces held a victory parade in the Chechen capital Tuesday to commemorate the end of World War II, while gunfire from the current war in the ravaged republic reverberated around the city.


Troops wearing full-combat gear and strained facial expressions marched briefly around a small square in front of the city's airport, while snipers watched from rooftops, artillery units stood at the ready and special forces troops waited in ambush in the surrounding area.


A handful of Red Army veterans also took part in the display, their frightened expressions glaringly at odds with the intended mood of celebration.


Victory Day was the pretext for the ceremony, but there was no avoiding the five-month war in Chechnya. Judging from the gunfire in Grozny during the night and around the war-torn republic Tuesday, the conflict is still far from over, despite Moscow's repeated predictions of imminent victory.


Deputy Interior Minister Nikolai Yegorov, currently in charge of Moscow's campaign to re-establish control over Chechnya, urged supporters of separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev to "give up this pointless resistance."


"We must remember that we are on Russian soil and that we will complete our task," Yegorov said after an honor guard laid a wreath at the foot of a monument erected by Russian troops in memory of their Chechen war dead.


Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebels' commander in chief, responded with some tough talk of his own. Itar-Tass quoted Maskhadov as saying, "There will be no peace in Chechnya until the last soldier leaves."


There was little peace in Chechnya on Tuesday. Russian forces in Shali, 25 kilometers southeast of Grozny, shelled the Chechen held town of Serzhen-Yurt, according to Western reporters who were in the area.


Moscow declared a two-week unilateral cease-fire on April 28, but it has rarely been observed by troops on the ground.


Gunfire echoed throughout Grozny on Monday night. At times the shooting was heavy, and early Tuesday morning Russian forces opened fire with tanks and self-propelled guns from bases near the airport where the victory celebrations were later held.


Later in the day, artillery fire was heard near the rebel-controlled southwestern village of Orekhovo. Russian soldiers at checkpoints throughout western Chechnya reported heavy firefights during the night Monday.


Colonel Viktor Kalashnikov, emergency surgeon at the Russian military hospital in Grozny, said Monday's casualties had been fewer than the usual 10 to 12 per night. But he said he had been told to get his staff ready for heavy casualties once the holidays are over.


At a post on Grozny's outskirts, a Russian sniper pointed at the lush green fields where he said Chechens come in at night. "They are specialists," said the sniper, who gave his first name Nikolai. "We don't hear them coming, we don't see them, they avoid all our booby traps and they leave no sign that they have been here -- but their fire is deadly.


"Before we came here, they told us that the war was already over and that Grozny had water and electricity," Nikolai said. "As you can see, that is not the case.