Although the Chechen defenders managed to keep the symbolically important office building, their mood has turned somber in the last several days, as their losses have mounted from the nonstop Russian shelling. Four weeks of holding out against the bigger, better-equipped Russian force is taking its toll.
Chechen soldiers ran through the deserted streets of the mud-splattered capital far more circumspectly than in previous days, when they had strolled with confidence past the bodies of Russian troops and charred armor.
The air in Grozny now reeks of an acrid smoke from the numerous burning buildings. The Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, has abandoned his bunker in the presidential palace for the safety of a mountain hideaway 25 miles southwest of Grozny, according to the Russian government press center.
Some Western reporters who made their way into central Grozny yesterday said that the palace could fall by week's end. If that happens, many of the Chechen fighters in Grozny are expected to take to the mountains for a protracted guerrilla campaign.
Then, many Chechens fear, the fury of the war will spread to the countryside. Warplanes bombed mountain villages south of Grozny yesterday, the influential Echo of Moscow radio station reported. Chechnya, which declared itself independent in 1991, has been resisting Russia's effort to reassert control.
Perhaps in anticipation of the fall of Grozny, Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov returned to the city, where he has spent most of the war, so he could report his observations to the Russian people. He had returned to Moscow for three days last week in a vain attempt to persuade Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to halt the war. Kovalyov is to address the Russian parliament when it returns on Wednesday from its holiday recess.
The Russians are now pressing down on the Chechens from the north, east and west. The last remaining road in and out of the capital is in the south, and that highway came under rocket and bomb attack yesterday from Russian warplanes. Only one bridge remains on that southerly route, and it is a mystery why the Russians have not yet destroyed it.
For now, at least, the Chechen defense is bent, but not broken, according to a reporter from Reuters news service who interviewed numerous groups of Chechen soldiers. The Russians mounted another attack near the strategic railway station yesterday, but the Chechens were able to hold them back. According to another fighter, 29 Russian tanks had reached the central market and were firing on the palace from that position.
"We took a lot of them prisoners," Umar Aliyev, a 29-year-old Chechen fighter, told Reuters. "They had tanks and parachute troops and special forces, but we captured some of their vehicles and drove them back."
Since the Russians were forced to retreat from Grozny after a humiliating defeat, they have managed to regroup and alter their tactics. Instead of attempting to seize the city in a single overwhelming assault, they are now advancing cautiously behind a steady artillery barrage. Based on Aliyev's statement, it also appears the Russians have at last brought in paratroops. Their job is to root out Chechen snipers block by block, clearing a safe path for tanks to advance.
Downed tree limbs, trolley wires, blasted masonry and shattered plate glass
from the artillery barrage have turned the pavement on Grozny's main street into an obstacle course, with soldiers and civilians diving into alcoves for cover whenever shells whistled past.
The Chechens are still driving around in some of the armored carriers they captured in their New Year's victory. When one of these, flying Chechen colors and bearing casualties from the battle, screeched to a halt in an outlying safe area, cheers of Allahu Akhbar (God is Great) rose along the street from Grozny's Muslim defenders, Reuters reported.
But the crowd was momentarily sobered when a dead Chechen fighter wrapped in a sheet was dragged from the back of the armored vehicle.
Yesterday was the ninth day of the Russian ground assault on Grozny. Several thousand people have been killed and wounded, and the Red Cross estimates that 350,000 have become refugees since Russian troops entered Chechnya.