Under Fire in Last Rebel Strongholds

SHALI, Chechnya -- The outlook is grim in Shali, one of the last Chechen towns still in the control of supporters of President Dzhokhar Dudayev.

The regular road linking the town with the rest of rebel-held Chechnya has been closed by the fighting; the new route is a slippery mud path. A local boy pointed the route out with the directions: "Bear left at the burned-out tank, watch out for mortar attacks."

On Tuesday, the BBC reported that Russian forces had begun a major offensive on the town, just 35 kilometers south of the Chechen capital Grozny, and that Chechen defenders were responding with small-arms fire.

The base for Dudayev's only tank regiment, Shali has been a target for Russian attacks since the war began last December. On Jan. 3, a Russian air strike left 80 dead and over 160 injured, including shoppers at an outdoor auto-parts market and patients at the town's only hospital. When Grozny fell and rebel fighters regrouped in Shali, daily bombardments resumed.

The night is a symphony of the sounds of war. Howitzers and mortars pound Chechen defenses along the road. Machine guns rattle on the Argun River several miles away, where the main Russian force is assembled. Grad rockets crash all over the place, sometimes slamming into the town's brick houses.

By day, the streets are mainly populated by tough-looking young men in battle fatigues bristling with grenades and ammunition, Kalashnikov assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Women and children have been sent off to villages up in the mountains.

The Chechens have some rockets, mortars and even a few tanks -- although these have to be hidden in the daytime. The fields around Shali are strewn with the remains of Chechen tanks whose commanders did not heed the threat of Russian air power.

The town's military commander glanced indifferently at the windows in his candlelit office as they shook with the explosions of Grad rockets falling outside.

"Who cares if they bombard us?" said the commander, Aslanbekh Abdulkhadzhiyev, a reassuring smile spreading across his tired features. Several of the hard-faced fighters at his side nodded their assent. "We will never give up our land to the Russians," Abdulkhadzhiyev said.

Bravado, no doubt. But the Chechens derive their confidence from conditions they believe are ideal for waging an indefinite guerrilla war. While Russian artillery and warplanes can strike any point in Chechnya at will, controlling territory has proved to be another matter.

Even after the fall of Argun, 25 kilo meters east of Grozny, rebels occupy a large swath of the fertile plain that stretches out from the Caucasus mountains.

The Russian forces have preferred to bombard rebel positions from afar rather than take them by storm; their advance southward has been slow. And when federal troops do occupy territory, they face regular guerrilla attacks at night."

Ivan is fighting to maintain the territorial integrity of Russia," said Abdulkhadzhiyev. "He is fighting so as not to die."

"But we are fighting for the Chechen nation," he said. "That's the difference."

Although they are badly outgunned, many of Shali's defenders are battle-hardened, like Magomed Khasiyev, 23, formerly of the Soviet special forces. Khasiyev has lost two fingers on his shooting hand and has 24 shell fragments in his leg. He has learned a good deal about fighting tanks with an AK-47.

"There's a gas tank to the left of the caterpillar track; hit that with a 7.65mm armor-piercing bullet and the turret flies," he said. "You just have to be able to get close."

The Russians, who estimate that Dudayev still has 15,000 fighters, have made clear their intention to crush the rebellion. Leaflets dropped on Shali from Russian helicopters and jets read: "Resistance to the federal troops will result in powerful retaliatory strikes, the total destruction of the city and the death not only of the members of armed formations, but also the peaceful population ... Your days are numbered."

The threats have had little visible effect on morale here.

"They've been dropping those since the first day," said Sulemein Khadzhimulatov, head of the neighboring Vedeno district in the mountains to the southeast, which is also in rebel hands. "But we're still here."