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Despite Promises, Russia Continues Grozny Attacks

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
GROZNY, Russia

On the first day of what Moscow announced would be a unilateral 48-hour suspension in its assault on Grozny, Russian artillery continued to pulverize the city center and Russian and Chechen snipers traded small-arms fire from mid-morning to evening.

Thus, the end of the first month of Russia's military campaign against the renegade republic of Chechnya ended as it began at dawn on Dec. 11 - marked by violence, distrust, confusion and questions about who is giving the orders.

"What cease-fire?" said a grinning Chechen fighter as he picked his way through the heaps of rubble, smashed glass and tangled power lines strewn about Avturkhanova Prospekt, a few hundred yards from the presidential building. "We don't believe anything the Russians say."

The principal effect of the Kremlin's declaration was to limit the Russian bombardment to the area directly around Grozny's main square and presidential building, where shells were crashing every minute or so at midday. Other neighborhoods, which have been blasted with mortars, bombs, rockets and shells since the New Year's Eve attempt to storm the Chechen capital began, were spared Tuesday.

From all indications, Russian ground troops maintained their positions several hundred yards from the presidential building, which remains a Chechen stronghold. And following a brief lull in the early morning, perhaps a result of heavy fog, the fighting in the center picked up as the day wore on.

It was impossible to tell which side shot first after the cease-fire began at 8 a.m. local time (midnight Monday EST), although it was hardly surprising that small-arms fire should continue with the two sides separated by so little ground. The Chechens seemed fully to expect a renewed Russian onslaught, and they appeared to be bracing themselves for a fresh defense of the city.

But in general, Moscow's announcement of a cease-fire proved no more real here than two previous orders by President Boris Yeltsin that Russian aerial bombing of Grozny be halted in the wake of heavy civilian casualties. On both occasions - at the end of December and again last week - the orders were followed within 24 hours by Russian airstrikes against the Chechen capital.

Moscow said its cease-fire declaration, coming a day before the Russian parliament was scheduled to meet in emergency session on Chechnya, was intended as a last-ditch attempt to give a negotiated settlement a chance. Chechnya, a landlocked region 1,000 miles south of Moscow, about the size of Connecticut, has waged a drive for independence from Russia since 1991.

But the two sides have not engaged in face-to-face peace talks since Dec. 14, and there was no sign Tuesday that either was prepared to shift its basic negotiating stance. Moscow still demands that the Chechens lay down their arms and accept Russian sovereignty in return for a vague offer of amnesty. The Chechens, who have a centuries-long history of fierce resistance to Russian rule, do not take the offer seriously.

The Russian news agency RIA reported that Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev had welcomed the truce offer but wanted several new clauses, including a provision for opening corridors for food supplies and humanitarian aid.

Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's human-rights commissioner, criticized Moscow's cease-fire proposal, which he said amounted to a new ultimatum to Chechen fighters. He said the offer differed radically from the one officials agreed to order Monday.

The relaxation of the Russian shelling on areas of Grozny outside the heart of the city offered many residents a chance to breathe easily for the first time in days. In a triumph of optimism over recent experience, one man on Avturkhanova Prospekt was installing new glass in his upper-story apartment window, amid hundreds of shattered panes on a pockmarked building facade.

Away from the center, thousands of people emerged from the relative safety of cellars, basements and bomb shelters, taking advantage of the respite to search for water, food and missing relatives. Many of them were elderly women - ethnic Russians, Chechens and others - who have stayed in the blasted city in many cases because they have no money to leave and nowhere to go.

As they told their stories to journalists, a few managed a spirited smile that betrayed a dogged determination to press on and outlast the death and destruction all around them.

Others simply dissolved into tears as they recounted their days and nights of terror, of huddling in freezing underground basements without sleep, of trying to feed children and grandchildren after their houses or apartments had been destroyed, along with their supplies of food.

"How can I feed my boy?" cried Valentina Kisma, 47, an ethnic Estonian whose 13-year-old son had the hungry, scrawny look of a street child. "What can I do? There's nothing I can do."