Chechen reconquest near final phase

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In a replay of Tsarist Russia's conquest of the Caucasus, Russian troops have pushed a brutal six-month-long reconquest of Chechnya into a new and possibly decisive phase, capturing a heavily wooded gorge where 19th- century rebels made their last stand against the army of Alexander II.

The capture of the key stronghold of Vedeno, which had served as headquarters for forces loyal to Dzhokhar Dudayev, gives Russia its first important foothold in the mountains that dominate the south of Chechnya since the Chechen war began last December.

Chechen rebels show little sign of giving up, responding to the fall of Vedeno on Sunday by shooting down a Mi-24 attack helicopter. Two crew members were killed, the Russian Defence Ministry said yesterday.

In an interview with Itar-Tass news agency, a rebel leader acknowledged the loss of Vedeno and said separatist fighters would change tactics and focus on guerrilla activity rather than direct confrontation.

Small mobile groups of Chechen fighters are "well armed and can act on their own for a long time," said Ruslan Galayev, Chechen commander of a zone south-west of Grozny, the Chechen capital. He said General Dudayev, who has not been seen in public for weeks, and his top commander, Aslan Maskhadov, "are keeping the situation under full control".

By pushing into the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, Russia hopes to flush out rebels already driven from Grozny and a string of villages in the lowlands of the rebellious republic, which declared independence in 1991.

Spearheading the current Russian offensive are marines rather than the poorly trained conscripts who bore the brunt of early fighting. Russia's campaign headquarters in Mozdok yesterday reported 35 Pacific Fleet marines killed and 71 wounded since the start of May.

Russia's thrust into the mountains follows a relative lull in fighting last month when President Boris Yeltsin ordered a unilateral ceasefire in advance of celebrations in Moscow marking VE-Day. At a joint press conference with President Bill Clinton, he announced that the war was over and Russian troops confined to "creative work".

President Yeltsin first announced the war was winding down in December. It has escalated steadily since.

The conflict appears to have reached at least a symbolic turning point. According to Itar-Tass, it was at Vedeno that Imam Shamil, leader of the region's 30-year-war of resistance against Russia in the 19th century, suffered a decisive defeat in April 1859.

He then fled into neighbouring Dagestan and surrendered four months later.

President Yeltsin first ordered troops into Chechnya on 11 December for a military campaign which his Defence Minister Pavel Grachev boasted would last only a few hours. More than 1,500 Russian soldiers have perished.

Among civilians, who have suffered most from often indiscriminate Russian shelling and air raids, the death toll is estimated at over 25,000.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe organised peace talks in Grozny last month but neither side has offered any hint of serious compromise. Russia dismisses rebel units as "illegal armed formations" and demands they surrender all weapons.

The Chechens have hinted at flexibility on the issue of sovereignty but say any discussion of Chechnya's status can only follow a withdrawal of Russian troops.