Russians say army ready to quit Chechnya

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The Independent Online
The Russian Defence Ministry yesterday said it would soon start pulling army units out of Chechnya, as they had succeeded in routing the Muslim rebels, making it possible for Interior Ministry troops and police to finish the job.

The guerrillas have vowed to fight on and it remains to be seen whether Russian soldiers, many of them 18-year-old conscripts, can hope for a quick return home. Interfax news agency quoted a Defence Ministry source as saying a commission will work out a withdrawal plan, which would be published in the next few days.

A pull-out was possible because the army had "routed key formations of militants, destroyed a considerable number of heavy weapons in the hands of the supporters of General Dzhokhar Dudayev, completed the encirclement of Grozny and seized strategic targets in the Chechen capital".

Early on Monday, Russian troops crossed the Sunzha river and poured into Minutka Square, the rebels' main stronghold since the fall of the presidential palace two weeks ago. Yesterday, as shelling continued, some rebels held out at the bus station, but were reported to be considering a withdrawal from the capital.

That decision is widely seen as inevitable, sooner or later, since Russian troops outgun the rag-tag Chechen army.

But it will by no means signal the end of the war for the Chechens, who have said they will go into the mountains, from where they will harry the Russians as did the Afghans for 10 years.

Plans for a formal Russian pull-out may be premature but, according to the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a withdrawal of a kind is happening as hundreds of soldiers desert. Nail Salekhovsky, spokesman for mothers who travel to Chechnya to look for their sons, said 500 deserters had turned up in Moscow, with no intention of reporting back to their units. "Why should they?" he asked. "This war is a terrible joke."

n Znamenskoye - The Russian-led government that Moscow wants to install in Chechnya will decide today whether it can safely move into Grozny, Reuter reports. Beslan Gantemirov, the former and - if Russia has its way - future mayor of Grozny, said the move should take place "tomorrow or the next day".

"Tomorrow there will be a meeting here which should move all the administration to Grozny," he said. The administration is headed by Nikolai Semyonov, a Russian. His three deputies, all Chechens, lead the anti-Dudayev opposition in the Caucasian region.

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