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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen War Moves Into Mountains

ITUM-KALE, Chechnya -- As Russian troops pressed ahead with their furious assault on Grozny on Friday, the war in Chechnya had already moved to the southern mountains where guerrilla fighters were preparing for a long campaign against the might of the Russian army.


The terrain here is ideal. Sheer cliffs rise up high above narrow gorges and wooded ravines lead into hidden side valleys. Sharp crags and tall medieval towers provide lookout posts above the roads. Woods and rocky inclines offer cover from ambushes.


Russia, in anticipation of the fall of Grozny, has already dropped paratroopers in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains to cut off the route leading south.


Following the trail of refugees who have fled to the mountains, Russian warplanes rocketed villages, roads and bridges over the last few days.


"There will be a war in the mountains, a guerrilla war. If they are bombing there, that means it is already war. We have everything for a guerrilla war, everything is ready," said Mukhadim Khalimov, 32. Trained in the Soviet Army, Khalimov belongs to the "Abkhaz Battalion," a 500-strong fighting force of Chechens who fought in Abkhazia in 1992.


Khalimov was visiting the commander of volunteers in Goi Thu, a small town 40 kilometers south of Grozny in the foothills of the Caucasus, to gather more men and arms from among the local people.


"We gather a group of 15 to 20 men and give them some training and act as a leader to them. Today I will find a group," he said. "It is easy to pass on knowledge, bravery they already have."


Deeper into the mountains, where the steeply wooded slopes disappear into the clouds, Chechen fighters were thumbing a lift along the narrow mountain road. "I just came up to stay with relatives, to rest for a week, to wash and to eat," said one fighter who was returning to Grozny.


A veteran of the Afghan war, he said, "Now we are teaching the young ones. People are training up here, they are learning how to use weapons, how to strip down a rifle."


The Chechens' best chance, he said, was to draw the Russians onto hostile terrain. "We are waiting. We did not attack the Russians when they first crossed the border, we waited until they first came to the city, where we know all the streets, all the buildings, and underground basements.


"It is the same in the mountains. We will wait, we have patience, we are getting ready and we will fight them when they come."


Bravado perhaps. But many of the men here seem natural fighters and all are experienced hunters. They learned to shoot at a young age, hunting wild fowl in the summer, bears in the autumn and hares in the winter.


A tiny black figure across the valley scaled a sheer rock face, climbing like a cat burglar with just his bare hands. "He is training. There is a club here where they practice mountain climbing," said Isa Utsiyev, a villager from Gukhoi, a hamlet over 2,000 meters high near the Georgian border.


Utsiyev, who said his two brothers were fighting in Grozny, was told by the local commander to stay in his village, to be ready to fight in the mountains.


The villagers of Gukhoi have reason to be concerned. Early Wednesday morning Russian military jets flew over the tiny hamlet, perched high above the valley. They returned at 11:30 A.M. just when Lechi Sadayev's family, along with their cousins, refugees from Gikalo, were having lunch.


Fifteen children, two mothers and a grandmother were inside the house when two rockets slammed through the roof, exploding into the walls.


Twelve children were wounded from flying shrapnel, including Sadayev's two-week-old baby girl. She died on the way to hospital. She had not lived long enough to be given a name.


Sadayev moved the rest of the family still higher up the mountain the same day. He was scared the jets, which fired a total of 16 rockets during the raid on his homestead, would return.


He said he did not know why the jets targeted his house, but it made a guerrilla war inevitable. "There is no difference between dying from bombing or dying when fighting," he said. "So we will fight."


Those who live in the remote villages high in the Caucasus Mountains, after a week of daily rocket and bomb attacks, feel they have their backs to the wall.


"We know how to fight and how to protect our families," said Vakhid Alkastov, deputy prefect of the village of Itum-Kale.


He denied the Chechen army had a training camp near his village, but Chechen fighters on the road said the villagers were keeping silent because they were fearful of more bomb attacks.


The white snowy ridge of mountains towered behind him, marking the high passes of the border with Georgia. A farmer and hunter, Utsiyev knows the mountain trails intricately. In summer, he makes the four-day trek on horseback over the passes into Georgia.


"People fled across the mountains to Georgia in the winter only once before and that was on Feb. 23, 1944, when the Chekists deported everyone," he said.


Arbi Islamov and his brother, Zelimkhan, leader of the volunteers in their village of Shatoi, believe the Russians aim to wipe out the Chechen people a second time.


Zelimkhan Islamov organized a group of 37 hunters to search for two missing villagers, taken hostage by 50 Russian paratroopers who dropped into the woods above their village. The hunters said they surrounded the Russians in the foggy morning, returning fire when the Russians started shooting.


"We quickly killed two of them and wounded two more. The fighting lasted 20 to 30 minutes, and then one shouted, 'Don't shoot.' It was one of the hostages, and his brother recognized his voice. He came to us and said the Russians wanted to talk."


The Russians, cold and hungry after several days on the mountain with no supplies, surrendered and handed over their arms, which were taken to the local civil defense point at Atagi.


Russian helicopters flew over the next day, threatening his village and four others that if they did not hand over the paratroopers their villages would be bombed. So far the threat has not been carried out.