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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Running Grozny's 'Sniper Alley'

GROZNY -- Forget "Sniper Alley" in Sarajevo. Grozny's Avturkhanova Street from Minutka roundabout north to the Chechen capital's shell-splintered presidential palace is the most dangerous mile of roadway in the world.


Russian planes, tanks and artillery have turned a bustling thoroughfare lined with shops, residential blocks and 19th-century government buildings into a killing zone of awesome devastation.


Homes and flats have been abandoned. Shattered windows and facades pitted by shrapnel gape out at muddy streets where flames surge from broken gas lines. When the wind shifts, the rush of escaping gas is easily mistaken for the sound of approaching warplanes.


Moving north on foot, one decides whether to run across the railway tracks, where Russian snipers and mortar bombs are active, or through the underpass, where a well-placed artillery round could catch pedestrians.


The other side is a world of smoke and flame. Shards of glass dislodged by distant shelling tumble into the streets as lines of Chechen fighters snake through the rubble to and from front-line positions near the Presidential Palace.


The first several men in each group probe like antennae on a centipede, pausing at each intersection to check for snipers before racing across the open space and taking up positions to provide covering fire for those following.


An occasional civilian can be seen wandering the street, searching for water or food or getting a breath of fresh air after emerging from the basement shelters where most live.


The closer one moves to the palace, the more intense the fire. Sniper rounds crack through the air unpredictably in a city where battle lines shift suddenly and without warning.


Hugging the buildings for protection, ducking into alcoves when shells come close, one encounters a series of curious still life scenes.


A dust-covered travel office with posters for exotic destinations has a hole in the wall and an unexploded shell stuck like an arrow in the floor.


A dentist's chair tilts crazily out of a ground-floor window, as if to give passers-by a view of work in progress.


Blood-encrusted stretchers rest on the floor of a former bakery under a reproduction of the smiling Mona Lisa.


Demobilized Russian tanks litter side streets near the Sunzha River, where their furthest advance into the city was turned back by the Chechens on New Year's Eve. The bodies of soldiers sprawl nearby. By the time the bridge across the Sunzha is in full view the shooting is so intense one has to run forward or turn back. To linger, undecided, is madness.


Sniper and mortar fire rake the bridge, but Chechen irregulars push across into Freedom Square, the Presidential Palace and beyond, where Russian tanks and infantry crowd south, chewing up the city as they advance.


Half an hour on foot or just a few hair-raising minutes by car or truck, Avturkhanova Street from Minutka to Freedom Square is the life-line of the Chechen defense of Grozny, an obligatory trip for those covering the war.


Even those who go to the presidential palace on foot look for a ride out, reckoning the less time in the area the better. One group of Western reporters accepted the offer of a lift from an army truck that had delivered food and medical supplies to fighters in the palace.


Moments after the building took a direct hit the anxious passengers stumbled to the back of the truck as its engine revved for the getaway. They threw up the tarpaulin and climbed in, only to find huge canisters of fuel and loose loaves of bread sliding around the cargo area.


"Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest)" shouted the Chechen driver as he headed for the Sunzha River bridge in what amounted to a bomb on wheels. "Amen" prayed the reporters.