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Chechens win publicity battle with Moscow

Chechen rebels began melting back into their mountain hide-outs last night after an all-out assault on Grozny which was evidently meant as a message to the Kremlin that it will not end the war in the republic without negotiating with them.

Fierce fighting continued in the city yesterday, but some reports indicated the Chechens were gradually withdrawing after a three-day battle in which they seized a third of the capital, suffered many scores of casualties, but secured a sizeable publicity coup.

Russia's Interior Ministry - keen to imply that it has emerged victorious from the fray - said that the situation was "under control", as federal troops began "search and destroy" missions to flush out the remaining pockets of Chechen fighters holed up in the city.

As they did so, Anatoly Kulikov, the Interior Minister - who co-commanded Russia's disastrous bombardment at Pervomayskoye - touched down at Grozny airport, where he held talks with the head of the Moscow-backed regional government, Doku Zavgayev. The Chechen assault began at dawn on Wednesday, the eve of a meeting of President Boris Yeltsin's Security Council to discuss ways of settling the 15-month conflict, which he has vowed to end before the presidential election in June. The timing strongly suggests it was an attempt to steal the thunder from Mr Yeltsin, who left the meeting claiming to have a framework for a settlement, but without revealing details.

The President, although vague, did indicate that the Russian forces will continue to fight the rebels and their leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, with whom he has ruled out negotiations. The attack by the Chechens, who demand independence from Russia, appears to have been an effort to show that there can be no enduring settlement which excludes them.

Comment on Chechnya in Moscow was muted yesterday, as it was a holiday, but the latest flare-up has already been seized upon by Mr Yeltsin's political opponents, who are well aware of the mood of public anger and frustration engendered by the war.

This sentiment is hardly surprising, given the disasters suffered by the Russians in the past six months. They have seen huge sums of money earmarked for a small Caucasus republic that most of the country cares little about, while millions of ethnic Russians wait for months for pay or pensions.

They have witnessed their army, including their once-prized special forces, being humiliated at Pervomayskoye by a band of 250 hostage-taking rebels, many of whom managed to escape, despite almost blanket bombing.

In addition, the former military commander in Chechnya, Lt-Gen Anatoly Romanov, is still in a coma, the victim of a bomb attack in October.

And they have seen young Russian soldiers dying daily. All this from a group of rebels under a former Soviet air force officer turned clan leader - Mr Dudayev - representing a minority of Chechens, whom many link with crime.

Mr Yeltsin will be acutely aware that this is probably not the last he will hear from Chechnya, a war that he now concedes was a mistake, before the election. Although he is doing his best to convince voters he has a workable solution to the conflict, most analysts doubt it. What they do not doubt, though, is that the rebels will go on doing their best to oust him from the Kremlin.