On December 16, foreign news agencies reported that in the night between December 15 and 16, federal forces with support of armored vehicles tried to storm Grozny. Independent Television reported with reference to Reuters and Associated Press that a tank column entered Grozny from the eastern direction from Khankala in the night. According to foreign correspondents, seven tanks and eight armored personnel carriers managed to reach Minutka Square not far from the center of the city. However, there the armored column of federal forces encountered bitter resistance from the militants.

According to Associated Press, the battle on the Square lasted almost for three hours. According to this agency, about 2,000 militants fought against the armored column, and many of them were armed with grenade launchers. The version of the Associated Press says that as a result of the clash, federal forces lost a few vehicles and had to retreat. A correspondent of Reuters who witnessed the battle reported casualties of Russian servicemen. When the column retreated, multiple rocket launchers of federal forces allegedly struck a powerful blow on the center of Grozny, reported the agencies.

Meanwhile, already in the morning the PR service of the Defense Ministry decisively denied the information about the night attempt to storm Grozny. “This is an informational provocation,” announced Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, “there is no storming of Grozny, and there will not be any,” stressed Sergeev.

Colonel General Valery Manilov, the Senior Deputy Chief of the General Staff, also denied reports of some mass media about the defeat of the Russian armored column in the center of Grozny. “Reports about defeat of the armored column on Minutka Square by the militants are lies and misinformation,” said Manilov. According to Manilov, “armored vehicles have not entered the city.” He added that the federal forces command did not conduct the storming of Grozny yet. “Until there are civilians in the city, there will be no storming of Grozny,” announced Manilov.

Thus sensitively reacting to the “misinformation,” Colonel General Manilov disavowed the previous statements of the Defense Ministry representatives that Grozny would be soon liberated. Civilians represent an obstacle for achievement of this goal. They keep leaving the city through the humanitarian corridors provided by federal forces. The headquarters of federal forces in the North Caucasus reported that on December 16 about 700 people left the city. “These are mainly people of Chechen origin, because the bandits hinder the efforts of the Russian-speaking residents to leave the city,” said the military. The military added that the field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, the leaders of the Chechen militants, are in Grozny. The militant forces subordinated to them are about 2,000 men strong, and are deployed near the Severny airport. The federal forces headquarters possesses the information that in Grozny, the international terrorist Osama bin Laden met with Basaev and Khattab. During this meeting they discussed the scope of the assistance required for Chechen militants.

Thus, hindering departure of the Russian-speaking residents from Grozny, the terrorists use them as a living shield. The federal forces command understood this, and tried to peacefully liberate the Chechen capital. The military speaks about the opening of additional corridors to allow refugees to escape and the militants who decided to surrender, keep spreading leaflets, and negotiating with elders and field commanders, but so far this does not bring the desired success.

On December 16, Colonel General Manilov reported to journalists, “naturally, we will further allow civilians to leave Grozny, and this work will be improved: probably there will be five or six corridors to enable civilians to leave Grozny.”

According to Manilov, “the third phase of the anti-terrorist operation is currently being carried out, it is conducted in an irregular manner, primarily in close cooperation with the local population and religious leaders.” Through these anti-terrorist operations, four Chechen cities were liberated from terrorists and bandits without any large-scale combat operations. Those included Gudermes, Urus-Martan, Achkhoi-Martan and Argun. Of all 120 liberated populated spots in Chechnya, over 80 had not been damaged, noted Manilov.

He reminded that the essence of the third phase of the anti-terrorist operation is accomplishment of liquidation or neutralization of bandit formations in the foothills and mountainous districts of Chechnya, “where there are practically no civilians.” Manilov stressed that “if the bandits do not surrender, they will be eliminated.” According to him, this will create the preconditions necessary for political solutions of all problems and establishment of state power in Chechnya.

Manilov noted that the operation which federal forces are conducting in Chechnya was progressing successfully.

Answering the question about the possible actions of federal forces against Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, Manilov said, “We proceed from the assumption that he is the President of Chechnya, that is why in this situation even the wording that we get hold of him is not suitable. I think that we will act within the framework of the current legislation, and our long-standing relationships with Aslan Maskhadov.”

The Colonel General reported that overall casualties of the bandits and terrorists during the whole time of the anti-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus are nearing 7,000 people, including about 5,000 in the territory of Chechnya. According to Manilov, the losses of federal forces have amounted to 402 killed, about 130 of which died in the territory of Dagestan.

Speaking about the deadline of the operation, Manilov said that the major part of it would be accomplished by the end of the current year. However, the Colonel General added, “small bandit formations will remain, which will escape, and a couple of months more will be needed to complete the operation.”

It is difficult to agree with this. The major forces of the militants are concentrated in Grozny and they are preparing to fight against federal forces in a kamikaze manner. Probably some of them are hoping to break through to the mountains (the troops prevent such attempts daily), but these attempts are doomed to fail. According to the military, on December 16, small groups consisting of 15-20 militants each tried to break through to the southern districts of Chechnya from the sealed off city. Artillery and combat helicopters attacked them. The quantity of casualties among the militants is being verified.

The militants in Grozny obviously do not know yet that the city is already surrounded with a double ring, and all roads to the mountains are blocked. This means that when they got to know this resistance of the fanatic militants surrounded in Grozny will be fiercer.

Thus, we might question the statements of the Defense Ministry representatives that liberation of Chechnya would be accomplished within two or three months. The mountains in Chechnya are covered with impenetrable forests, which represent a good shelter and are conducive to guerilla operations. The factor of the weather also plays a negative role. In the ravines filled with snow, it is very difficult to move, and dense clouds and fogs reduce the frequency of aviation operations. The blockade of Grozny might also last for a long time, because the terrorists surrounded in the city are prepared to suffer a large number of casualties. Any dialog with them is useless, and hence they will not surrender the city peacefully. Most likely federal forces will have to oust the militants house by house, block by block. Time is needed for this. The Chechen capital will evidently be the last populated spot liberated from the militants during the operation in Chechnya.

Meanwhile, each day of war requires big expenditures. Alexander Zhukov, the Chairperson of the Duma Budget Committee, announced that between September and December about 10 billion rubles was spent on combat operations in Chechnya. Current combat operations in Chechnya cost the government “approximately 3 billion rubles a month,” said Zhukov. According to him, so far the Chechen campaign has been financed on account of additional revenue exceeding the income stipulated by the law on the budget for 1999. With regard to financing of the Chechen campaign in the next year, Zhukov noted that, when the Duma was debating the draft budget for 2000, it increased the spending on national defense by 26 billion rubles. Hence, if the combat operations in the North Caucasus are not drawn out, “the government will manage to remain within its budget constraints for national defense, ” said Zhukov in his interview to Echo of Moscow radio on Thursday. Along with this no assignments for restoration of Chechnya “are included into the budget for 2000,” added Zhukov. He says that expenses on the combat operations in Chechnya themselves will hardly result in revision of the budget for 2000, but together with expenses on restoration of the republic’s economy these expenses reduce the government capabilities to finance the social clauses of the budget. Zhukov did not rule out that a combination of these circumstances with the other factors, such as the absence of foreign financing of Russia, which might result in the need to revise the budget very soon.