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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Misgivings On Russian Front Line

SHAMI-YURT, Chechnya -- The tanks, spread across the road three abreast and fanning out across the snowy fields, withdrew, rolling back several hundred yards. It was a gesture of goodwill to local Chechens who had stopped the column some 50 kilometers from Grozny. But the tiny retreat seemed also to reflect the unhappiness of the Russian soldiers.

"We are not doing a good thing by being here," said a Russian captain, a doctor with a medical team at the head of the column. "We are fighting civilians, it would be better if we left."

Regular soldiers grouped at the head of the column turned away when asked to explain how they felt about their mission to Chechnya. But the doctor, who declined to be named, said he was not alone in his misgivings. "Almost all the officers think the way I do," he said.

In Moscow's largest military operation since the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where 13,000 Russian soldiers died, that sentiment offered no guarantee against a massive attack on the Chechen capital. But the doctor's heart clearly would not be in it.

Asked if his column would move on the capital, he said: "It would be senseless to attack Grozny, it would lead to a guerrilla war, it would be like a second Afghanistan and it would end the same way."

The doctor was with a team which, after negotiating with the local Chechen officials, was setting off to collect a Russian helicopter crew member who had been captured and taken to a Chechen hospital in the nearby village Shami- Yurt.

Chechen fighters had shot down his Mi-8 helicopter, which crashlanded on the main road ahead of the Russian column advancing on the Chechen capital Grozny from the Southwest. It stood across the road, amid broken branches from the trees it had smashed through as it came down. Bullet holes had pierced its windscreen and fuel tanks. Fuel was flooded across the road.

The two pilots had apparently been killed in a firefight in the surrounding woods as they tried to escape, although the Chechen fighters said the Russians were dead when they were found in the helicopter. In Moscow, the head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service Sergei Stepashin said the pilots had been "literally torn to pieces by local residents," The Associated Press reported, citing Interfax.

Resistance, both passive and armed from local Ingush and Chechens has slowed its advance.

Major General Ivan Babichev, commander of the tank column, said he decided to stop the advance, AP reported. "We don't want to shoot the people,'' he said, echoing the military doctor and military analysts who believe the Russian army is ill-prepared to engage in a war on civilians.

Nasser Chizniez, the Chechen military commander of Sunzhensky region, where the helicopter came down, took out a Russian military badge and a small present given him in negotiations by another of the column's commanders -- whom he called General Sergei Yakovlyevich.

"We returned the dead pilots and will return the one in hospital," said Chizniez. "We do not want war and we do not want them to kill on our soil."

Chechens gathered around the crashed helicopter were in a less conciliatory mood. The gunship, with another, had been firing on Chechen positions in Shami-Yurt when it was shot down. "This is Yeltsin's humanitarian aid, said one Chechen fighter. "We will blow up Russia's nuclear power stations," another shouted.

One Chechen, who gave his name as Akhmed, came from Moscow two weeks ago to fight. Two of his brothers were killed in the attack on Grozny by Russian and Chechen opposition forces on Nov. 27, he said.

Yaya Dashayev, who said he was one of those who shot at the helicopter, echoed the fears of the Russian military doctor. "We will keep fighting. If they manage to take Grozny, it will only be the beginning," he said.