Moscow poised to squash the 'banana republic'

This time the Russian army will not skulk away in battered buses. That was what happened in November 1991 when Boris Yeltsin made his first attempt to halt secession on Russia's southern flank.

The omens now are far more menacing: the din of a nighttime airlift into the military airstrip here, the clank of treaded tracks from armoured vehicles on muddy concrete, a convoy of GRAD rocket launchers and artillery on a dark country road, and the hissing frustrations of Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Muzhaev.

''This is a banana republic,'' said the commander of the Mozdok Interior Ministry detachment. ''A banana republic that feeds off the Russian people.'' He stabbed a map hanging on his office wall, jabbing the place names that prove, he says, that Chechnya is part of Russia, not an independent country: Bratskoe, Alpatovo, Ishersaya. ''These are not Chechen but Russian, they are ours.''

President Yeltsin, nearly 1,000 miles away to the north in Moscow, has vowed to deploy ''all forces and means'' to end Chechnya's three years of self-declared statehood. A small but forbidding part of these forces was on display last night on the road leading to and from Mozdok airfield: armoured personnel carriers, military earth-moving equipment and long lines of troop-carrying trucks.

It is only 10 kilometres from here to the border with Chechnya and a straight run on down to the capital, Grozny, and the presidential palace of Dzhokar Dudayev.

Inside the base shine the red landing lights of the airfield in neat ordered rows, an order that Russia has spent some 200 years trying to impose on the more than 30 nationalities of the Caucasus.

President Yeltsin tried to set an equally rigid boundary on Tuesday morning with an ultimatum giving Mr Dudayev 48 hours to disband his army and free all prisoners, including as many as 70 Russians captured in fighting last weekend - though there was some confusion over Moscow's intentions yesterday when Mr Yeltsin's original ultimatum was reissued without a key phrase threatening to declare a state of emergency.

Pavel Grachev, the Russian Defence Minister, has boasted that it will only take two hours for Russian paratroopers to defeat Mr Dudayev.

Lieutenant-Colonel Muzaev thinks it will take even less, but, as a 40-year-old veteran of Afghanistan, he predicts that Chechnya will be defeated but not pacified. ''In Afghanistan it was easy at first but then they taught us.''

Russia is amassing troops along the two main roads into Chechnya, one at Mozdok, the other at Vladikavkaz. Mr Yeltsin's 48-hour deadline passed yesterday morning at 6am with no immediate response from the Russian military, though unidentified planes again attacked Grozny, hitting both civilian and military airports. A wall of Russian military hardware was also reported as being erected on the eastern border of Chechnya on the road to Makhachkala on the Caspian.

Lieutenant-Colonel Muzhaev, dressed in jungle fatigues and surrounded by cheery acolytes in similar attire, said the struggle to bring Chechnya to heel would continue for years: ''You British were in Afghanistan for nearly a hundred years and you still couldn't control it. We were there for 10 years and nor could we.''

Russia's forces are clearly planning more than a brief surgical strike. Among the armoured convoys gathering along the border last night were camp kitchens that suggest a full-scale military campaign could soon be under way.

(Map omitted)

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