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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Guerrillas Prepare to Take to the Hills

GROZNY -- As the midnight Saturday deadline approached for Chechens to lay down their arms or be crushed by the might of the Russian Army, Ayud Khansultanov sat in his kitchen in a village not far from Grozny, preparing himself for battle.

Unpacking five grenades, he lined them up on the kitchen counter. One by one he unscrewed their tops and inserted new silver pins. "These are for Yeltsin," he said, laughing, showing a glint of gold teeth. "Yeltsin himself made bandits out of us."

Khansultanov said he returned in October from five months of training in guerrilla warfare in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. "They taught us about mines and how to use different weapons," he said.

Khansultanov said he was among some 280 Chechens who joined Tajiks, Uzbeks and others at the training camp, flying from Grozny to Karachi, Pakistan, and then traveling on into Afghanistan.

"We did not know where; we were in the mountains, we were not near any towns," he said.

Now, in his kitchen, Khansultanov was putting his training to use.

Beside him lay an impressive arsenal: a Kalashnikov, bought with his own money; several rocket-propelled grenades; a launcher; and a big antitank machine gun with a roll of armor-piercing bullets. This last was seized from the Russians, he said.

Dressed in combat fatigues, Khansultanov, 30, said he had been fighting for a week. Now his group of some 150 fighters had been ordered to gather and go to the mountains to carry on a guerrilla war.

A rendezvous had been set for later in the night, and he had been out informing all the men.

The bombing from the air would be tough, he said, but the rest of the Russian forces were rubbish. "We will come at them from all sides, shooting them like partridges."

With dark circles around his eyes, he seemed weary and preoccupied, his mind elsewhere. "I have just come from the mountains. I went to say goodbye to my family," he said.

Khansultanov had already moved his wife and three children to his village, to join his brothers' families.

"I have taken all my belongings to the mountains. If I die, my son will need something."

A trader since he was 13, Khansultanov said he had traveled to China, Pakistan and Turkey. Life was good until the Russians came, he said. "They are uninvited guests; they don't let us lead peaceful lives."

As he spoke, a man on Chechen television read from a manual explaining how to blow up a tank by hitting the most vulnerable parts. The Chechens already showed their skill in knocking out tanks when, in November, opposition forces tried to storm Grozny. Three burned-out tanks lie in Lenin Square, in the center of the city, at the feet of a plinth that once supported a statue of the Soviet revolutionary leader.

One Chechen battalion commander, at a post on the outskirts of the city on the main road north to the village Pervomaiskoye, said his main task was to prevent Russian tanks from breaking through into the city. He had served in a tank division in the Soviet army. "A Russian tank is a moving coffin," he said. "One hit is enough."

His men were well armed with grenades, and a 122-millimeter antitank cannon was dug in under a camouflage net in the middle of the dual carriageway.

Other Chechen fighters at a post just north of Petropavlovskoye Shosse, close to the front lines below the village of Tolstoi-Yurt, were less well equipped, but no less confident.

Some as young as 20, they had a Kalashnikov each and a crate of Molotov cocktails -- Russian champagne and vodka bottles filled with crude oil mixed with gasoline and stoppered with rags. The local people made them, he said, and had also given them food and tea.

The fighters claimed to have carried out a raid on Russian positions during the night, running up close to a post, firing enough to cause panic among the soldiers, and then withdrawing. Their mood was confident and, if not optimistic, then fatalistic -- bolstered by their Islamic faith. Several wore green bands on their heads, marking them as smertniki, or death brigades, men willing to fight to the death in what they call gazavat, the word in the Caucasus for a holy war in the name of Islam.

"When Russia started its aggression we regarded it as a holy war. The imam appealed to the people to defend our faith," said Naib Idigov, 25, a dark-eyed man with rocket-propelled grenades strapped to his back. "If we win we will become wealthy in the future; if we die, we will join Allah and be happy."

But it is groups like Khansultanov's, with strong ties in the remote mountains of southern Chechnya, which look likely to reopen the wound that Russia suffered in Afghanistan. A natural authority combined with deep conviction of his right to independence means Khansultanov will fight on even if Grozny falls and Dudayev is killed.

Asked which forces were superior, he said, "The day is theirs, but the night is ours."