Ambush blow to Yeltsin's hopes

Just as his political fortunes seemed to be rallying, the Chechen war has reared up in the face of Boris Yeltsin with the death of 26 Russian troops in a rebel attack timed to undermine one of the most important fixtures of his election campaign to date.

As the embattled president went wooing voters in the southern Russian city of Budennovsk yesterday - scene of a mass hostage-taking by Chechen separatists last year - news reached Moscow that rebels had laid waste a Russian convoy 30 miles south of Grozny.

According to a Russian military spokesman, 26 servicemen were killed and 51 were wounded in the attack which - no doubt to the further discomfort of the Kremlin - occurred shortly before leaders of the G7 countries, including John Major, gather in Moscow for a heavily-hyped nuclear summit this weekend.

The episode was yet another dent in Russian efforts to convince the international community and domestic voters that the Chechen war is coming to a close, following Mr Yeltsin's announcement on 31 March of an end to major military operations and the his peace plan.

Despite Russian denials, it has become clear that fighting on both sides has continued, including aerial bombing raids by the Russian military on Chechen villages - most recently, Goiskoye.

Details of yesterday's assault were incomplete last night but the Interfax news agency said the Chechens attacked a convoy of 27 lorries, blasting them from close range with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortars. All but four were reportedly destroyed.

That the attack was timed to disrupt Mr Yeltsin's early campaigning for June's presidential election is in little doubt, as the Chechens have previously demonstrated that they know precisely how to grab the headlines. Last month, on the eve of an all-important Russian Security Council meeting on a settlement for Chechnya, they stormed into Grozny and held part of the city for three days.

As he campaigned through the city yesterday, Mr Yeltsin made no mention of the ambush. He did, however, have harsh words for the Chechens, accusing the rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev of disrupting all previous peace efforts.

In remarks that will bolster rumours that his hardline military advisers are withholding information from him, the president also made the astonishing claim that "there is no war as such", boasting that two-thirds of Chechnya's districts are free from rebels. However, the "fight against terrorism and banditry"would continue.

Whether many Russians believe this double-speak remains to be seen, but the signs are not promising. During a campaign visit to southern Russia this week, Mr Yeltsin arrived to boos and jeers. And in Budennovsk, many on-lookers said they would not vote for him, despite his repeated promises to end the war.