Chechen rebels take charge of capital

Ferocious Grozny battles are a warning to Yeltsin on the eve of his inauguration, writes Helen Womack in Moscow
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The Independent Online
Fierce battles continued yesterday between Chechen rebels and Russian forces in the Chechen capital, Grozny, with grenade-launchers, mortars and automatic weapons. The rebels claimed that the Russians lost 80 armoured vehicles, nine helicopters and a plane. The Russians denied losing a plane, but admitted heavy losses, including at least 70 dead and several hundred injured.

The Moscow-backed deputy Interior Minister, Yuri Plugin, said up to 2,000 rebels were "dominating the situation" in central Grozny. It is unlikely that the rebel band, consisting of only a few hundred men, can hold the city against the far superior numbers of federal troops. But the mere fact that they have caused so much death and destruction was a severe blow to Boris Yeltsin on the eve of his inauguration today as Russia's re-elected president.

Even yesterday, after Russian reinforcements arrived in the city, the guerrillas were putting up fierce resistance, declaring that this was their gift to the president who had promised to bring peace to the Caucasus, but who had allowed air raids on Chechen villages within days of being returned to the Kremlin.

"We went in Yeltsin's direction during the elections, believing that he would even allow presidential elections on our territory," a Chechen field commander, with the nom de guerre of Rezvan, was quoted in Izvestia as saying. "But it turns out that Yeltsin tricked everyone. Now we want to ruin his celebrations and remind all his guests that the war is continuing and that Chechnya will never be conquered by force."

With the peace process in tatters, force was all Moscow had to offer yesterday. While the helicopter gunships, known as "crocodiles", fired rockets against rebel positions in the suburbs, army reinforcements, whose convoys had rumbled into Grozny overnight, fought to clear guerrillas from around the compound of the pro-Moscow government in the city. A spokesman for the Russian command said the situation had improved since Wednesday, when federal forces virtually lost control on the ground and could do little but attack the Chechens from the air. Even so,the leader of the raid, Shamil Basayev, notorious for having taken hundreds of civilians hostage in a hospital in southern Russia last year, declared scornfully that, if a Russian delegation wished to make peace with him, they would be safe as the city was in his hands.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it was "extremely concerned" about wounded civilians left unattended during three days of fighting. Many civilians slipped out of Grozny before the rebels entered the city on Tuesday. But hundreds stayed and have been cowering in cellars throughout the onslaught. Despite the confrontation, however, after the inauguration, Mr Yeltsin is expected to go on holiday, leaving the problem of Chechnya to the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin - if the Communist-dominated State Duma reconfirms him in office. Mr Chernomyrdin, generally regarded as a dove on Chechnya, told MPs yesterday that the Grozny rebels would be rebuffed, but that all-out war was not the long- term solution to the region's problems.

Some commentators in the Moscow press are comparing the rebel raid on Grozny to the 1968 Tet offensive that showed the US it could not win the war in Vietnam and proved to be the turning point of that conflict.

Yesterday the leaders of two Muslim Russian republics, Tatarstan and Ingushetia, suggested peace might have a chance in Chechnya if Moscow brought in negotiators untainted by any involvement in the war. They nominated the new National Security chief, Alexander Lebed, and the new Defence Minister, Igor Rodionov.

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