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Chechen rebel HQ falls

Moscow - After 16 weeks of fighting, the demolition of Grozny, the deaths of nearly 1,500 Russian soldiers and a civilian death toll possibly ten times as high, Russia yesterday said its forces had overrun the town of Shali, the last major rebel stronghold in Chechnya, writes Andrew Higgins.

Oleg Soskovets, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, announced yesterday that "active combat actions are over".

The advance, if true, would seem to mark the end of the first stage of a war that, until now, has centred on the capital and heavily populated towns to the south and east, moving the conflict towards a less intensive phase of guerrilla action.

Shali's capture came only a day after Russian troops announced the fall of Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes, and puts two-thirds of the region under Kremlin control.

Rebels loyal to Dzhokhar Dudayev have threatened to carry the war into the hills. If so, there may be more months, possibly years, of violence.

Interfax news agency yesterday quoted the Russian command at Mozdok airbase as saying Russian forces had suffered no losses capturing Shali, the rebels' headquarters since they fled Grozny in late January.