The Russian military is denying the Chechen claims that the rebels were able to break through the federal forces’ circle around the Chechen capital and asserting both that the rebels had suffered heavy losses and that Russian troops would soon capture the city. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, who visited Russian forces near Djohar yesterday, claimed that 586 rebel fighters had been killed while trying to leave the city. Other Russian officials claimed that a number of top Chechen field commanders and officials–including field commanders Khunkarpasha Israpilov and Aslambek Ismailov, Djohar Mayor Lechi Dudaev and Deputy Prime Minister Turpal Atgeriev–had been killed in the recent fighting. Russian military sources claimed today that federal forces have taken control of half the capital (Reuters, Radio Liberty, February 3).
The rebel website Kavkaz.org today confirmed that Ismailov and Israpilov died during the bombing on February 1. It also said that field commander Shamil Basaev had lost three toes on his left leg after stepping on a mine while exiting the city, and that the same leg had also been hit by shrapnel. Both Russian and Western media have reported that Basaev was severely wounded while exiting the Chechen capital and had to have a leg amputated (see the Monitor, February 2). The rebel website did not mention an amputation. Another rebel website, however, denied it today, and accused the Western journalist who had reported it of being a “professional liar” (www.qoqaz.net, February 3). Ironically, the rebels’ skepticism towards reports of Basaev’s injuries was seconded by none other than Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya. Yastrzhembsky said during a press conference today that these reports were little more than rumors designed to “disorient” Russian law enforcement agencies, and claimed that Basaev has long been known to employ “doubles.” Yastrzhembsky did not indicate whether any of the doubles had received leg injuries (Russian agencies, February 3).
Whatever the case, Basaev was quoted as claiming that 2,970 Chechen fighters had managed to leave the city, while forty-three were killed and thirty-seven wounded (Kavkaz.org, February 3). Meanwhile Bislan Gantemirov, the pro-Moscow Chechen militia leader, gave credence to Basaev’s claims and contradicted those of the Russian authorities in claiming that 3,500 Chechen fighters had managed to escape the Chechen capital over the last three days and that very few were left there (Reuters, February 3).
The claims and counterclaims are part of the ongoing information war which both sides are waging simultaneously with the shooting war. It is not surprising that the Russian military is emphasizing the damage it was able to inflict on the rebels as they attempted to break out, given that the highly mobile rebel forces frequently managed to escape the Russian army’s noose during the last war, and that Russia’s military commanders this time have repeatedly vowed not to allow the rebels in the Chechen capital to escape a federal encirclement. It would seem, however, that the Russian army–even while inflicting heavy casualties on the fleeing rebel fighters–has again failed to prevent a large number of rebel fighters from escaping. One of the rebel websites today referred to the retreat from Djohar as “a tactical withdrawal,” noting that the rebels did the same in the last war, only to re-take the city in August 1996 (www.qoqaz.net, February 3).
PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER OUSTED…