Chechnya suffers as Moscow rifts widen

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As Russian warplanes relentlessly bombed civilian targets in Grozny yesterday, Moscow's military leadership struggled to maintain a facade of unity amid reports of a purge of top officers commanding the campaign in Chechnya.

As bombs rained down on the Chechen capital, Tass, the official Kremlin mouthpiece, reported that General Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, had sacked six senior commanders for lacking enthusiasm for the war. Later the ministry issued a denial, but the position was still not clear last night.

The evident confusion in Moscow was compounded when President Boris Yeltsin, who is still allegedly recovering from a minor nose operation, sent a letter to parliament saying he would soon put forward plans to resolve the Chechen crisis "based mainly on using political methods".

If Mr Yeltsin intended to signal a change of tack, there was certainly no sign of a policy shift on the ground. Throughout the day, Russian fighter-bombers swooped low over Grozny's residential districts, dropping bombs seemingly at random and killing more than 20 people, including an American photographer. Last night the jets were in action again, this time targeting the palace of President Dzhokhar Dudayev.

The reported Moscow purge came after a series of rebellions in the officer corps of the forces fighting in Chechnya. In a dispatch from from Mozdok, the headquarters of the Russian operation against Chechnya, Tass said "half-a-dozen" top commanders had been sacked, including the Deputy Chief of Ground Forces, Colonel-General Eduard Vorobyov.

Earlier in the day the head of the State Duma defence committee, Sergei Yushenkov, a liberal who has spoken out against the war, said Gen Vorobyov had refused to serve in Chechnya. Other sources said the general had tendered his resignation, and it had been rejected.

Whatever the truth, the career of the Defence Minister is hanging in the balance. Gen Grachev, who nearly fell this autumn in the furore surrounding the murder of a reporter who had exposed serious army corruption, has staked everything on a Russian triumph in Chechnya.

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