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Chechen rebels strike Russian troops by night

As the Kremlin prepares to roll out the red carpet to foreign leaders in Red Square for celebrations marking the defeat of Hitler's Germany, the towns and woods of Chechnya heave with the gunfire and rancour of a 20-week war that threatens to turn President Boris Yeltsin's meticulously choreographed Moscow festivities into a public relations debacle.

A series of attacks on Russian posts, including military positions in and around the ravaged Chechen capital of Grozny, make a mockery of Moscow's repeated claims that the war in Chechnya is over.

"The Russians are only in control of the ground their tanks stand on," scoffed Hussein, a Chechen fighter who spent the early stages of the war guarding the Presidential Palace in the centre of Grozny and now, along with thousands of other rebels, is preparing for a long, grinding campaign of guerrilla action in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.

To try and prevent the din of fighting in Chechnya disrupting next Tuesday's celebrations, billed as the biggest gathering of foreign leaders in Moscow since the tsarist era, President Yeltsin declared a two-week moratorium on combat in Chechnya. Both Chechen and Russian forces show scant sign of respecting the order.

"It is disinformation that the war is nearly over," said Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Belonovsky, commander of Russian troops in eastern Chechnya after his command post in Gudermes, Chechnya's second biggest city, came under a daytime attack last week. "They know the mountains well, the city well and, of course, they can work easily at night," he said of Chechen fighters.

Forced to withdraw from Grozny, Gudermes, and most of the other towns in the fertile plains of central Chechnya, rebels have now set up bases in remote villages and thickly-wooded hills. At night, small "storm groups" of Chechen fighters skirt checkpoints and penetrate deep into what is nominally Russian-controlled territory to remind the Kremlin that the Chechen war is far from over.

On the road near Achkoi Martan, a former rebel stronghold west of Grozny, a line of around 40 Russian artillery pieces and tanks pound rebel-held areas to the south. Further east, near the village of Orekhovo, two groups of Russian tanks blast away day and night, leaving a haze of thick, white smoke against the green hills behind.

"We are defending the village so that the Russians cannot come in and then say they control all of the plains in Chechnya. It is not true, and we do not want to give them the chance to say it," said Isa, a battalion commander in a village still controlled by fighters loyal to Dzhokhar Dudayev, the former Soviet bomber pilot who declared Chechnya an independent state in 1991.

"There are corridors. Our boys can get through," said Isa, who asked that neither he nor the village be named. "A group of say 10 will go on foot, moving at night. They stay there about five hours and then come back."

As the visit to Moscow of President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister John Major, and other leaders grows nearer, Chechen rebels have intensified their resistance with ambushes and hit-and-run attacks. Russian troops across Chechnya say they are shot at night and, complaining of sniper and machine-gun fire, grow visibly tense as night falls. The tension sometimes erupts into violent quarrels among Russians troops.

At Gudermes, Interior Ministry troops shot dead one of their own men after he protested about the killing of an elderly Russian woman during a fire-fight. Since then, according to one Russian officer, soldiers sleep with grenades by their sides just in case of attack - not by Chechens, but by fellow Russian soldiers.