. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Blast Symbolic Stronghold

NEAR BAMUT, Chechnya -- If Chechnya is a thorn in Russia's side, then the village of Bamut is its sharp point.

Russian combat helicopters unleashed wave after wave of attacks Wednesday, sending smoke billowing into the sky over the settlement which has come to symbolize separatist resistance against the odds in the 19-month conflict.

Federal forces declared earlier this year that they had ousted the rebels from their heavily fortified positions around a former Soviet nuclear missile base at Bamut, about 45 kilometers southwest of the regional capital Grozny. Russian state television even showed pictures it said were the remains of the silos which made Bamut so impregnable.

But the latest bombardment indicated the battle for this lowland stronghold was not over. The distinctive whoosh and repeated boom of Grad multiple rocket launchers was clearly audible across the fields a short distance away.

"It started last night," said a soldier standing at a checkpoint. "Our regiment withdrew and they [the rebels] took their positions."

Chechen separatists said Tuesday their fighters had regained control of Bamut. But Interfax quoted Russian forces as saying Wednesday they were in full control after breaking through a rebel encirclement.

When asked how the separatists had managed to retake the settlement, the soldier at the checkpoint replied: "They never left. We took the right side but did not get the left where the [missile] shafts are."

Ruslan Gelayev, rebel commander of Chechnya's southwestern front, said in an interview in April that his men could slip through Russian lines easily just by walking across the fields.

A Russian officer prevented journalists from venturing too close to the latest fighting. He said he had heard enough questions about Bamut. "My place is 40 meters from where they are bombing. I have to go back. People are waiting for me," he said, depositing us at the nearest village of Assinovskaya.

There, conflicting reports about the fate of their former home were nothing new for Asya Batishvili and Zabrat Ferzauli, two Chechens of Georgian origin who once lived in Bamut.

"When they [the Russians] last said they had taken it, they said we could go back," said Batishvili. "But then they didn't let us."

Batishvili said her husband had died 10 months ago defending the base. "But our people won't give it up."

The Council of Europe on Wednesday condemned Russian military operations in Chechnya. It was the second time since Yeltsin's re-election that the 39-member organization, which safeguards human rights and democracy, had protested against fighting in the region.

"What is there to go back to? There aren't even any bricks left there," chipped in her friend who now lives in Assinovskaya.

Interfax quoted a spokesman for Russian federal forces as saying troops had broken through lines of three groups of rebels in an operation Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Chechen guerrillas, fighting for an independent homeland, say they still wish to resolve the conflict through talks.

President Boris Yeltsin agreed in the run-up to his re-election to a truce with rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

An accord was later signed on the removal of Russian checkpoints, an exchange of prisoners and the gradual withdrawal of Moscow's forces in exchange for the rebels' disarmament.

But fighting resumed soon after Yeltsin won re-election on July 3 and none of the agreements has been carried out fully.