Chechen rout drives Yeltsin to the brink

Russian corpses litter streets
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The Independent Online
The corpses of dozens of Russian soldiers and Chechen warriors lay unattended in the streets of Grozny last night after the battle for Chechnya's capital raged throughout a fourth day.

The magnitude of the Russian military disaster in Grozny - only now becoming apparent to the Russian people - is matched by the personal and political disaster for the Russian president. Most of the politicians who once supported Boris Yeltsin are deserting him. Opinion polls show an almost total collapse in public support for the president, who was once the idol of the Russian masses.

"A large-scale political crisis is developing in Russia involving the authorities, public opinion and the mass media," Mark Urnov, an aide to the president admitted yesterday.

The Russian army claimed to have seized the initiative overnight and yesterday morning by destroying eight trucks filled with Chechen fighters and capturing 60 gunmen, alleged to include Afghan and Jordanian mercenaries. But a reporter for the semi-official Russian Interfax news agency said he had seen dozens of crippled Russian tanks and more than 100 dead Russian soldiers in the streets near the palace of the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev.

It was also reported that Chechens armed with missile launchers, machine guns, grenades and flame-throwers pinned down a Russian unit at the railway station, about one mile from the presidential palace in the city centre.

Videotape obtained by Reuters news agency showed Chechen fighters moving unimpeded through city centre districts. Some opened fire on Russian troops from behind trees or kiosks. Others, clutching their weapons, advanced warily along streets with buildings blackened and pulverised by three weeks of Russian air raids.

Mr Dudayev appeared on Chechen television on Monday night and threatened to kill an unspecified number of Russian prisoners if Moscow refused to end its assault. "We are certain that victory will be ours," said Mr Dudayev.

Russia's government press service, acknowledging that the attempt to capture Grozny had encountered strong resistance, said that Chechen forces had set ablaze dozens of Russian armoured vehicles since the assault began on New Year's Eve. It said in a statement: "Armoured vehicles are being fired at from multi-storey apartment buildings, and it is extremely difficult to determine where the shooting is coming from."

Despite the ferocity of the Russian attacks, which included more aerial bombardment yesterday morning, about 100 supporters of Mr Dudayev were still holding the presidential palace and other units were operating in up to 50 parts of Grozny. But the casualty toll is high, and about 100 wounded Chechens are arriving every day at a hospital 20 miles south of Grozny.

The Russian army said one tactic of the Chechen forces was to fill trucks with machine guns, grenade launchers and light artillery, drive into troop formations, open fire and then drive away into residential areas.

President Yeltsin, who ordered the assault on Grozny at the price of losing most of his political support, remained silent but his spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, indicated there was some official unease about the handling of the campaign. "I think that one should raise the question of the professionalism of the drafters of the operation and its poor organisation instead of the lawfulness of the presidential actions," he said.

"No one has cared about the preparation of public opinion and the co-ordination of the political parties."

More trouble loomed for Russia on another front as the authorities confirmed that six Russian soldiers and a civilian had been killed in the Central Asian state of Tajikistan. The victims were said to have been killed by Islamic insurgents fighting for control of the former Soviet republic.