Christmas in Russia: hell in Chechnya

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The Independent Online
It was Christmas Day yesterday in Russia - and Moscow's armed forces marked it by launching the fiercest assault of the war in Chechnya, setting ablaze the presidential palace in Grozny, despite the presence of about 100 Russian prisoners being he ld in the building. But Chechen guerrillas continued successfully defending their capital. Machine-gun and sniper fire rang out in streets choked with the bodies of dead Russian soldiers and Chechen fighters.

The commander of Russia's Interior Ministry forces, General Viktor Vorobyov, was killed by a mortar explosion in the morning, and the presidential palace, where the Russian prisoners are held in the basement, was burning on five upper floors.

At one point shells were exploding in the centre of Grozny at a rate of 15 a minute. The city, home to 400,000 people before the war, was a smoke-filled landscape of abandoned cars and burnt-out apartment buildings.

"The Russians are using new methods, trying to move forward block by block with tanks and heavy artillery," said a Chechen commander.

"They're not gaining any ground, but they're destroying the city. There's a lot of shooting,but no real battle. It's just Russian tanks and artillery- no infantry."

The assault made a mockery of Boris Yeltsin's announcement on Friday that he was starting a political process to find a settlement to the conflict.

President Yeltsin, whose control of events has often appeared in doubt during the crisis, cancelled a scheduled appearance in Moscow forthe laying of the foundation stone of a new Orthodox cathedral. He also postponed from next Wednesday until the end ofJanuary a speech to both chambers of parliament.

The disarray in Mr Yeltsin's administration was illustrated in a row over state-controlled Russian television. The president said on Friday that he had sacked the controller of television, Oleg Poptsov, for distorted coverage of the Chechen conflict.

But Mr Poptsov's staff drew up a statement condemning his dismissal as "the start of the destruction of democracy and free speech in Russia", and the statement was read out on television evening news. State television has shown graphic footage of the war, underlining the Russian inability to capture Grozny, and has implicitly questioned the truthfulness of government information bulletins.

One of Mr Yeltsin's senior aides, Nikolai Yegorov, predicted last Wednesday that the Chechen capital would fall by Thursday or Friday without a fight. However, not only has Grozny held out, but the fighting has increased in intensity.

Western and Islamic countries have increasingly criticised the crackdown, leaving Mr Yeltsin more isolated internationally than at any time since he became President in June 1991.

The Russian government said in a statement that since Mr Yeltsin launched the crackdown against Chechnya's attempted secession on 11 December, about 2,500 Chechen fighters had been killed. Russian losses are officially estimated at slightly

more than 250 dead.

Lost faith, page 13

Neal Ascherson, page 20