Chechen horrors shame Yeltsin

Rout of army spoils President's big day

Chechen rebels heaped humiliation on President Boris Yeltsin yesterday, trapping his army in Grozny as he promised in an inaugural oath to protect his people and uphold the security of Russia.

After seizing large parts of the Chechen capital, besieging government buildings and pinning down thousands of Russian soldiers, the rebels began to withdraw from the city by nightfall, satisfied that they had ruined Mr Yeltsin's big day.

The inauguration ceremony, the first such event since Tsar Nicholas II's coronation in 1896, was largely overshadowed by the fighting in Chechnya, where rebels caught the Russians flatfooted last Tuesday by storming into Grozny.

Refugees were flooding out of the city last night, as new rebel units moved in. The sky was black with the smoke of burning oil from the refinery outside the city. Russian jets and helicopters circled overhead, and loud explosions could be heard. There were reports that the rebels had seized armoured vehicles from the Russians and were using them to repel fresh attempts to seize back the city.

Last night Russian officials and Chechen leaders were discussing a ceasefire, so that civilians and the wounded could be evacuated. The Russian government, clearly angry at the timing of the offensive, said: "Bandits armed to the teeth are robbing and killing peaceful civilians, continuing the genocide against their own people."

Russian commanders in Chechnya have sought to crush the rebels with months and months of air and artillery strikes, but the rebel leaders remain confident that they can continue a "hit-and-run" guerrilla war indefinitely. Even the reported death in April of their president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, has failed to break their nerve or disrupt their unity.

Rebel commanders said they intended to pull out of the city and return to their mountain strongholds during the weekend, having successfully exposed Russia's weakness at the moment of the inauguration.

Last June, the President agreed a truce with the Chechen leadership that was supposed to lead to the phased withdrawal of Russian forces starting next month. However, the fighting resumed almost as soon as Mr Yeltsin won re-election, and the rebels accuse him of arranging the truce purely to improve his poll prospects.

The frail President, attending a public ceremony for the first time since the election on 3 July, spoke slowly and moved stiffly as he was sworn in for a four-year term that many Russians doubt he will complete. Said by one of his closest aides to be suffering from "colossal weariness", he stood on the flag- and flower- bedecked stage of the Kremlin palace for 16 minutes as he took his oath and was blessed by Alexiy II, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch.

His lacklustre appearance left unanswered many questions about his ability to govern Russia and to implement the programme of political and economic reform on which he won re-election. However, guests who attended a Kremlin banquet afterwards said he had looked in better shape and had given a speech longer than the oath of office, which he took 45 seconds to pronounce. One Western guest said. "He made a toast and gave a speech. Then he had a few glasses of champagne and he actually looked fairly sprightly when he walked out."

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