Kremlin at war over Chechen conflict

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The Independent Online
Top Russian officials were yesterday fighting over who is in charge of resolving the Chechen war while President Boris Yeltsin - long rumoured to be ill - took off for what his aides insisted was a break in the country. His weakness at such a crucial moment has created a dangerous power vacuum at the heart of the Kremlin.

While confusion and intrigue swept through Moscow, the clock ticked towards tomorrow's deadline, when the Russian acting commander in the war zone says he will start bombarding Grozny in order to wrest back control of the city.

Aides to President Yeltsin have dismissed media reports that Mr Yeltsin has had another bout of cardiac trouble, after his two heart attacks last year. They have dismissed a Time magazine article which said the Kremlin is considering sending him to a Swiss clinic for double bypass surgery. And they have denied a report yesterday by Moscow's Ekho Moskvy radio station, which alleged he had been in a special cardiological centre for the last five days.

But if he is not ill - and the signs are that he is - his decision to set off on holiday in the Russian north-west is baffling. He left behind a furious dispute between Alexander Lebed, head of the Security Council, who is expected to go to Chechnya today, and hardliners within the government who cling to the belief that the conflict can be settled by force. He also left behind an unfolding tragedy in Grozny, where tens of thousands of refugees were fleeing the city, terrified by the prospect of a fresh Russian onslaught.

The crisis has sprung up only a fortnight after Mr Yeltsin's inauguration and bodes ill for his new government. Beneath the detail of the disputes between his entourage lies a struggle for power caused by the knowledge that the ailing President may not be well enough to complete his term. Mr Lebed has made no secret of his presidential ambitions.

Yesterday, in another outburst, Mr Lebed issued a statement via the Security Council that, in effect, suggested elements in the Kremlin were trying to scupper his recent peace efforts by issuing instructions on the President's behalf, without consulting him. The orders were that he, as presidential envoy to the war zone, should ensure that the Chechen separatists holding Grozny withdrew from their positions before the Russians entered further talks. The Security Council's statement warned of heavy losses among Russian troops, and "massive" civilian casualties.

As Mr Lebed has taken a conciliatory approach to Chechnya, the policy appeared to be a victory for the government's hawks. It came only two days after he publicly demanded the sacking of the Interior minister, Anatoly Kulikov, for mishandling the war.

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