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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Guerrillas Breach Lines to Pick Off Russian Troops

ARGUN, Chechnya -- The Chechen fighters slipped into town at 5 a.m., riding in four-wheel drive cars. They eluded the 12 Russian checkpoints around the town, only two of which had night-vision equipment.

One group quietly surrounded the railroad station, defended by transport police from Khabarovsk. Another group ringed a warehouse, where Interior Ministry troops were living, and the local police station next door. Snipers took up positions on rooftops and upper floors.

At 8 a.m., as servicemen trudged to the mess for breakfast, the shooting started. For 12 hours, the firing was so intense "you couldn't stick a finger out of the building," recalled one Russian soldier.

The Jan. 9 Chechen raid on Argun, a town well behind Russian lines, exemplifies the problems that Russian troops face. They can't surround every town with barbed wire and trenches. But if they don't, they face losses from the Chechens' well-honed skills in hit-and-run guerrilla warfare.

"These were professionals at work," said Colonel Anatoly Ivanchenko, commander of a detachment of Interior Ministry troops from Chelyabinsk. "To hit the head and neck with two shots - these are not rookies."

On the Russian side, there was confusion and miscues. As the battle raged, one commander cursed on the radio after attack helicopters took off in response to his request for help but then landed without attacking.

The town's military commandant, Colonel Vladimir Kushnerev, went out at one point to negotiate with the rebels, apparently despairing of being rescued or of being able to hold the town with his own resources.

On the outskirts of town, his two armored vehicles were stopped by a crowd of women and children. He got out of his vehicle unarmed and was shot dead by Chechen fighters in the crowd. Two paratroopers were also killed and the vehicles set afire. A captain from the transport police took over command and called in artillery fire on a factory building where Chechen fighters had taken cover - nearly bringing down shells on his own position.

The main body of fighters - estimated at 500 to 600 - withdrew near the end of the day, but sporadic shooting continued for two more days. On the third day help arrived, in the form of an armored train. But by then, the fighters were gone, taking their dead with them. The Russians counted their losses.

The official version: five dead. The Interior Ministry soldiers said privately that at a minimum, 30 had died. It wasn't clear whether they were counting losses among soldiers of the 101st Motorized Rifle Brigade, which was attacked on the outskirts.

General Gennady Troshev, deputy commander of Russian forces in the region, said in an interview in the mountain village of Nozhai-Yurt that Chechen fighters attacked a Russian column as it approached Argun, split it into three groups and shot it to pieces. He said that about 20 died. Others, however, said that the dead numbered 50.

Local resident Rasmagomed Boltukayev, 70, wondered, "How could this happen, that they let them into the city and then let them out? Why didn't they shoot at them as they left? Why did they wait for them to leave, and only then start shooting at us?" Russian officials, asked those same questions, answered that an investigation of events in Argun was under way.

No one in Argun, neither the townspeople nor the soldiers, doubts that one day the fighters will be back. "As soon as the 101st pulls out, they'll be back," said Colonel Ivanchenko. "You can't hold the town with just Interior troops and thepolice."

To control the town fully, the soldiers say, they would need to stretch barbed wire and set up observation posts - in other words, to create a fortified zone. One colonel at Russian headquarters in Mozdok, who did not want to be identified, said, "We should have set up a barrier along the Terek. But now it's too late, we're stuck in guerrilla warfare."

The colonel echoed proposals raised at the beginning of the latest war, that Russia should take back the easily defended, flat parts of Chechnya north of the Terek and set up a fortified border. That suggestion was made again last weekend even by such a hawkish figure as former Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, a promoter of the 1994-96 war.

"The generals liked it when we took cities without fighting or losses - we got all the way to Grozny that way," said the colonel. "But now the front is everywhere - in front, and behind, and from the sides."