General Gennady Troshev, federal commander in Chechnya, reported April 24 that fifteen Russian servicemen had been killed and six wounded in an attack on a troop column the previous day near the village of Serzhen-Yurt, in southern Chechnya’s Argun Gorge. Several armored vehicles and fuel trucks were blown up by radio-controlled bombs, while other vehicles managed to escape to the town of Shali. The attack on the federal column was led by two Arab guerrillas, Abu Valid and Abu Djafar, members of Khattab’s rebel force. The ensuing battle lasted three hours, and federal forces called in helicopter gunships for back-up. Casualty figures cited by Chechen sources and the Kremlin, of course, differed: the Chechen side claimed that more than eighty Russian soldiers were killed and thirteen armored vehicles destroyed (Russian agencies, April 24-25; Kavkaz.org, April 24).
Yet even if one believes the Russian casualty claims, this latest ambush of a Russian troop column–the fourth since March, when the Kremlin first claimed that the rebels had been defeated–is evidence that the rebels are far from being a spent force. It is noteworthy that the Chechens tried again yesterday to ambush a Russian troop column, albeit less successfully. According to General Valery Manilov, first deputy head of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, this latest attack took place not far from the entrance to the Argun Gorge, after which the attacking Chechen unit was driven off by artillery and helicopter bombardment. Manilov said that one Russian soldier was wounded and one vehicle damaged. During the same news conference, Manilov claimed that more than 13,500 rebels had been killed since the war started last year, and that only about 3,000 rebels remained. Manilov repeated the official line about “the military phase in the counterterrorist operation in Chechnya” being over. Other officials painted a different picture: Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev said in a television interview yesterday that 15,000-17,000 rebels are still fighting in Chechnya. Whatever the case, the number of refugees fleeing Chechnya into Ingushetia is, as before, greater than the number returning to Chechnya. This suggests that the fighting is by no means tapering off (NTV, Radio Liberty, Russian agencies, April 24-25).
In addition, there is every reason to assume that the Chechen rebels will soon step up their military operations, and that they will become more effective. According to Russian military sources, the rebels have significantly changed their tactics with the advent of spring and the appearance of foliage in the war zone. They have now shifted from direct attacks on federal forces to ambushes in the wooded mountainous areas. Federal forces are finding it very difficult to counter the rebel’s small, highly mobile units. In addition, once the mountain snow melts, the rebels may attempt to shift their military operations beyond Chechnya’s borders. There are signs that rebel field commander Shamil Basaev is planning to start up the war in neighboring Dagestan once again. A unit of Basaev’s fighters, made up of more than 100 Dagestani fighters trained in Chechnya, is concentrated near Chechnya’s administrative border with Dagestan (Russian agencies, National Electronic Library, April 24).
MASKHADOV STUCK BETWEEN MOSCOW AND CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDERS.