Chechen rebels inflict setback on Moscow

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The Independent Online
Moscow - Russian forces were yesterday reported to have suffered heavy losses in a new battle in Chechnya, which highlighted the difficulty of ending the war before June's presidential election as Boris Yeltsin had hoped to do, writes Helen Womack.

Military sources said 30 federal soldiers were killed and 67 wounded in fierce overnight fighting with Muslim separatists in the village of Goiskoye, 20 miles south of the capital Grozny. It was one of the heaviest death-tolls in a single battle this year.

Chechen guerrillas had shot down a Russian SU-25 fighter bomber over Goiskoye on Thursday, Tass news agency said, using a US-made hand-held ground-to-air Stinger missile. The pilot ejected and survived.

Russian troops attacked the separatists and believed they had cleared the village by Thursday evening. But the rebels opened fire again in the night and a Russian unit was forced to make a humiliating and costly withdrawal.

Fighting was also reported yesterday around the southeastern mountain town of Vedeno, a rebel stronghold. And the Russians were said to be again bombing the south-western village of Shazhali, despite the local prosecutor's inquiry into why the settlement was attacked earlier this week after elders signed a peace agreement with federal forces.

All this is disappointing news for President Yeltsin who last Sunday staked his political future on a peace plan announced on national television. The Kremlin leader, however, pressed on with a meet-the-people tour in the south Russian city of Belgorod, a stronghold of his communist opponents. Back in Moscow, another of Mr Yeltsin's rivals, the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky officially registered himself for the election on 16 June.

The latest opinion poll showed the communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, still in the lead with a predicted 21 per cent of the vote although Mr Yeltsin was closing on him with 19 per cent. Another poll showed that for 62 per cent of Russian voters, ending the war in Chechnya was the top priority.

With this in mind, Mr Yeltsin on Sunday announced a unilateral halt to military operations and promised a partial troop withdrawal. He also appointed Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as head of a new state commission charged with settling the conflict and offered to open talks with the Chechen separatist leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, through mediators.

Yesterday Mr Chernomyrdin was preparing to hold the first meeting of his commission.

There was no word from General Dudayev, whose fighters have poured scorn on Moscow's plan. But the head of Mr Yeltsin's working group on Chechnya, Emil Pain, was quoted in the Russian press yesterday as saying not all in General Dudayev's circle insisted on full independence and some might be ready to bargain.