Russians `prepare to storm Grozny'

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The Russian army must be ready to storm Grozny by 15 January in case a strategy of blockade, bombardment and attacks by special forces does not succeed in forcing the Chechen capital to surrender, according to the text of what purports to be a sec ret speech by Defence Minister Pavel Grachev.

The Defence Ministry in Moscow denied the authenticity of the report, published by the Russian liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Parts of the text were obtained by the US-supported Radio Liberty.

However, General Grachev said for the first time in public yesterday that Russian forces intended to "push deep into" Grozny to "seize weapons and liquidate armed formations". But he also said troops would not storm the city "in the classical sense".

His alleged plan as printed by Nezavisimaya Gazeta conforms with Russian military action around Grozny so far. If genuine, it would be the first explanation of what has often seemed a muddled strategy of slow-motion advance on the ground and repeated airand artillery attacks.

The newspaper said the report, which tells of the Interior Ministry, the regular army and the Federal Counter-Intelligence service preparing for unspecified special operations, was delivered by the general to a meeting of President Boris Yeltsin's Secur i ty Council on 21 December.

The first phase outlined in the text aims to throttle the city with a ring of Russian troops and to destroy basic services as well as administrative and military buildings. This should take from 10 to 15 days. During this period, special forces and propaganda should be used to "damage the stability of the situation and demoralise the population.

"If the blockade of Grozny does not bring the desired results of a political settlement then it is necessary to be ready for taking the city by storm," Mr Grachev was quoted a saying. "Storm detachments and groups" are to be formed before 5 January and should complete their "battle coordination" by 15 January.