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Despite Cease-fire in Grozny, Chechen Destruction Continues

By David Hoffman
The Washington Post
GROZNY, Russia

On the edge of town, under the towering pipes of a huge, abandoned petrochemical complex, two Chechen rebels set aside their rifles for a high-speed joy ride in a small Russian car, the Zhiguli, which bounced over the bumpy road so hard the trunk flew open. Their screams of delight echoed through the hauntingly empty refinery.

But not far away, in an apartment building so badly destroyed that its rooms disgorged bricks and debris, a somber Maria Frolova, a 72-year-old Russian pensioner, sat on a bench, surrounded by four mangy dogs. It was the first hour after yet another cease-fire was announced for the devastated Chechen capital, but Frolova could only sigh. "May God please end this war soon," she said.

These two scenes Friday spoke volumes about the decimated city in the wake of the cease-fire agreement between the Chechen rebels and Alexander Lebed, head of the Russian national security council. A tour of several Grozny residential and industrial districts suggests that the rebels are jubilant and well in control after recapturing the city from the Russians in a daring raid that began Aug. 6. But following 20 months of war, those civilians who remain, mostly the elderly and infirm, are dubious, frightened, dejected and desperately hopeful that the destruction will finally come to an end.

By their own account, the Chechens have succeeded in taking almost all of Grozny except for its two airports. Pockets of Russian soldiers are surrounded by Chechen fighters, but it appeared that Russians control little of the city. A few Russian flags were spotted atop concrete bunkers, but the Chechen separatists were moving about freely. Despite Russian encirclement of the city, Chechens had opened at least one road to the outside.

Under the terms of the cease-fire, all Russian troops in Grozny are to withdraw to two main airport bases on the city's outskirts this weekend. Russian forces are also to pull back next week from Chechnya's mountainous south, where the rebels are particularly strong. Joint patrols of Russian troops and Chechen fighters are to be set up to monitor the tenuous peace.

There has been some suggestion that the guerrillas too would withdraw from Grozny, but there seemed little likelihood of that. For one thing, many of them live here. For another, they are a victorious force in no mood to give up the ground they've gained.

The capture of Grozny was the biggest Chechen victory of the war, although the city they won is a desolate, bullet-riddled, shell-shocked ghost town. Along one leafy street, huge flames licked out of holes in a natural gas pipeline; wild dogs roam the streets; the sound of broken glass and hammers is heard as the few remaining residents try to hold their meager apartments together.

Moreover, the conflict has not entirely ceased. One woman hurried along a side street, trying to skirt what she said was sniper fire in the city center. There was also an unconfirmed report that the Chechen guerrillas are carrying out a brutal crackdown aimed at supporters of Moscow's puppet government.