JANUARY 16, 1996
LAWRENCE McDONNELL, ITN: For the second day now, the Russian artillery pounded the small village of Pervomayskaya. This was supposed to be a carefully planned operation to free the hostages, but commanders admitted their objective now was to flatten the place. The only negotiations they're interested in at this stage are for a surrender, but somehow, even under this relentless barrage the Chechens continued to put up resistance. Russian officers said the rebels were well dug in, defending the village with grenade launchers, mortars, and machine guns.
"The Chechens hit us with a grenade," says this tank commander. "We barely got out. It's pretty hot in there." Even with poor visibility, the helicopter gunships kept up their assault, launching salvos of rockets into the village ahead of the advance of ground troops. The Russian interior ministry claims sixty rebels have been killed so far, alongside four Russian soldiers, but the figures are difficult to confirm.
Russian security officials also say 26 of the 100 or so hostages have been freed. Most simply ran away in the confusion of the battle. After a brief interrogation to find out if any rebels were hidden amongst them, the villagers, the survivors were evacuated away from the fighting. This man escaped when the Russian assault first began.
"I crawled out when the bombing started," he said, "waited for dark and then called to the Russian troops not to shoot." Pervomayskaya isn't the only village caught up in the fighting. This house in nearby Perechnya was hit by a stray missile last night. The woman who lives here actually counts herself lucky. She popped out to a neighbor when a rocket hit. For the last 36 hours, there's been little for local villagers to do but watch and wait for news. Amazing, the commander of the rebels has been broadcasting from the center of Pervomayskaya during the battle. He maintains that his men have not executed any hostages, the Russian army's motive for launching the assault. He also says his men still control most of the village. In Moscow, demonstrators outside the Russian Parliament condemned the operation in Pervomayskaya. Many condemned President Yeltsin for siding with the nationalists in his new hard-line attitude in the republics. (Russian National Anthem in background)
Today was the first time the legislature met since it was elected last month. It is a parliament dominated by the Communists. Their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, is profiting from the perceived mishandling of the war in Chechnya.
GENNADY ZYUGANOV: (speaking through interpreter) All the calamities that happen in this country will diminish the chances of those who run the country.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: Though the Communists are vehemently opposed to the administration under President Yeltsin, for the moment they're determined to keep their heads down and have formed alliances with both the liberals and with the party led by the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Each party wants to look able to govern ahead of presidential elections in June.
VLADIMIR ZHIRNOVSKY: (speaking through interpreter) For the time being, we will try to maintain a neutral line and keep normal relations with other factions. Presidential elections are the main event for us now, and after June 16th, we, depending on election results, will take a tough position and become the main opposition party in Russia.
LAWRENCE McDONNELL: And tonight, Russian television broadcast the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly
Chubais, largely responsible for privatization in Russia, a clear sign that the reformers are being shuffled out of
the administration. "I hope this is a change of politicians, rather than policy," he said. "It would be the greatest
mistake to change policy so close to presidential elections." Only this morning the Communist leader Gennady
Zyuganov suggested there will be more government reshuffles. The resignation of reformer Anatoly Chubais proved
him correct. The Communist priority now is to look like a government in waiting while the crisis in Chechnya drags
President Yeltsin down.