Chechen rebels try to reclaim Grozny

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Chechen rebels yesterday launched a ferocious attempt to wrest back their wrecked capital city, on the eve of a Russian Security Council meeting to agree a strategy to end the war before it further damages President Boris Yeltsin's re-election prospects.

Reports from Chechnya suggested the fighting was the worst since Russian troops seized Grozny more than a year ago. Last night the Chechens took control of a power plant, according to Interfax news agency.

Earlier, Russian tanks rumbled into the city centre after an attempt to storm it was made by the rebels, who reportedly also occupied - then lost - a police post, and attacked at least 10 Russian checkpoints, using machine-guns and rocket propelled grenades.

The flare-up came as a unwelcome reminder to the Russian Security Council of the enormity of its task, as it prepared to gather in the Kremlin later today to try to decide a strategy for ending the conflict. Mr Yeltsin has pledged to settle the war before the presidential elections in June, where he is facing a strong challenge from the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov.

Before the council will be reports compiled by two commissions, convened by the President to explore ways of solving the crisis. But few analysts hold out much hope for their success. Their chairmen - the Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and a presidential adviser Emil Pain - have spent most of their allotted two weeks appointing members.

Rather, this flurry of official activity mainly represents an attempt by the Kremlin to widen the circle of blame for Chechnya beyond the presidential suite for a highly unpopular war which has claimed at least 30,000 lives. The latest victims comprise an estimated 10,000 refugees who are now living in tents and makeshift shelters after fleeing fighting in the Chechen town of Sernovodsk.

Mr Yeltsin has sent out mixed messages on Chechnya - a characteristic of his government's chaotic policy in the conflict. But he appears to believe that it can be wound down by carefully targeted attacks on the rebels, while striking local agreements with peaceable areas backed by promises of investment and a power-sharing deal.

Yet the rebels - who are well versed in the art of inflicting embarrassment on the Kremlin - seem likely to carry on resisting. Nor is it clear that the Russian military, which is populated by hardliners, is under the control of the Yeltsin administration, no matter what its policy.

The President can, however, go into today's meeting armed with what he will see as one piece of good news. Reports said that the rebel leadership has lost Salman Raduyev, the 28-year-old in charge of the raid which led to a mass-hostage taking in Kizlyar, Dagestan, and the Russian bombardment of Pervomayskoye in January.

He died in hospital from head injuries, less than two months after fighting his way through the Russian lines at Pervomayskoye with more than 50 hostages. As he was considered a possible heir to the Chechen rebel commander, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and his friend the Russians will regard his death as a triumph.

This view may not be shared by some of the Chechen rebels. Raduyev had been engaged in a power struggle with Shamil Basayev, the Chechen who led the rebel force which seized hundreds of hostages in southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk last June. Raduyev had also incurred wrath within Chechen ranks for taking pregnant women hostage in a maternity home during the Kizlyar operation - an act regarded as shameful by the more devout Muslims among the Chechens.

Yesterday the Russian authorities were busy spreading stories that Raduyev had been shot dead by his fellow Chechens after a fight over $1.5m (pounds 1m) apparently a payment for the Kizlyar raid (which had meant to be an attack on an airfield). As the circumstances of his death were still foggy, the Russians were taking the opportunity to present the Chechens as split and squabbling terrorists - but, for once, their version looked vaguely plausible.

n Russia's post-Cold War role is to counterbalance the growing influence of the West, the Russian Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, said yesterday, AP reports. Russia has gone "too far" in befriending the West after the 1991 Soviet collapse, he told the daily newspaper Izvestia.