Russians claim rebel capital will fall today

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The Independent Online
Chechen fighters, emboldened by their success at keeping Russian troops and armour at bay, scurried through the smashed streets of their capital yesterday, firing Kalashnikovs and shouting "God is Great".

In Moscow, defence chiefs dispatched fresh specialist troops to the region, but as President Boris Yeltsin ordered an end to Russian bombing of Grozny, one of his senior officials claimed he expected the Chechen capital to fall without resistance today.

In a statement issued through his press service, President Yeltsin said that he was stopping the air attacks "to prevent more victims among the civilian population". A similar promise last week was followed by more bombing raids and a large-scale tank a s sault on Grozny on New Year's Eve.

This time the Russian authorities expressed greater confidence that the armed forces had the city under control. It would also make military sense as cities reduced to rubble are more difficult to capture.

"Russian troops should take Grozny without fighting on 5 January," a Deputy Prime Minister, Nikolai Yegorov, said. He added that a pro-Moscow Chechen administration, headed by a former Soviet oil minister, Salambek Khadzhiyev, was ready to replace Chechnya's secessionist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev.

Mr Yeltsin made his announcement only hours after the Russian armed forces made it known that they had begun to airlift reinforcements to Chechnya. In contrast to the inexperienced teenage conscripts who make up much of Russia's present fighting force, they are well-trained units.

In Grozny, snipers peered out of shattered window-frames in apartment blocks ringed by rubble. The rattle of machine-gun fire occasionally betrayed their positions, while the thud of tank guns resounded sporadically through the town.

Trucks and cars filled with lightly-armed Chechen men, many of them smiling and shouting "Allahu Akbar", roamed the city, dodging downed power lines, burnt-out tanks and cars and bomb craters. "We are going to finish off the Russians who were thrown out of the railway station," one shouted.

Boys as young as 10 nonchalantly patrolled streets alongside adults, toting weapons and wearing ammunition belts.

Russian attempts to stop the Chechen conflict from becoming internationalised appeared to be falling apart as official criticism of Moscow's actions increased in France, Germany and Sweden.

ITN reported last night that the Russian air force was dropping cluster bombs. These bombs contains smaller bombs which are scattered across an elliptical area - distributing explosive force more efficiently that a single large explosion. In the bombs used against the Chechens the smaller bombs, in turn, contained shrapnel to cause maximum damage to people and light equipment.

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