Chechen war will end in a month, claims general

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As street battles raged in Grozny yesterday, a senior Russian general predicted that the war in Chechnya would be over in a month.

As street battles raged in Grozny yesterday, a senior Russian general predicted that the war in Chechnya would be over in a month.

Lt-Gen Gennady Troshev said the military operation would be completed by 26 February though "no one is setting the troops any deadlines".

In the Chechen capital, Russian tanks and infantry are inching forward into the city centre but are meeting stiff resistance from snipers who have had months to dig themselves into the ruins of the city.

Even Russian commanders on the spot are impressed by the skill with which the Chechens have laid out their defences. "You have to give them their due," said Maj-Gen Vadim Timchenko. "They have excellently prepared the city for defence in engineering terms, turning it into a many-layered fortress."

The main military problem for the Russians is of their own making. In both the last Chechen war, in 1994-96, and during the present conflict, Russian shells and bombs have smashed almost every building in Grozny, making the city look like Stalingrad in World War Two. Its ruined apartment blocks provide ideal terrain for snipers and small guerrilla units waiting in ambush.

Mumadi Saidayev, a Chechen commander interviewed by the Russian Interfax agency yesterday, said the Chechens did not intend to "contain the Russian army on the outskirts of the city at any price. On the contrary, we wish armoured vehicles to appear on the streets since the mobile groups, which know how to destroy armour, are ready for that".

Mr Saidayev did not rule out the capture of Grozny but said the Russian hopes that it would fall in two or three days were "wishful thinking" and Chechen fighters would make Russian troops pay "a huge price" in casualties.

He added that, if necessary, the guerrillas in the city could break out. They would then step up the guerrilla war in the rest of Chechnya.

Despite saying that they have no deadline, Russian generals are under pressure to capture Grozny and finish the war, not so much by the end of February, as Lt-Gen Troshev optimistically predicts, but by the Russian presidential election on 26 March.

The acting president, Vladimir Putin, became Russian leader wholly because of the invasion of Chechnya.

Russia has said previously that it cannot negotiate with the Chechens because there is nobody to negotiate with.

But yesterday, Malik Saidullayev, the head of a pro-Moscow organisation, said he is holding talks in the Russian capital with four influential Chechen field commanders - who have not taken part in the conflict - about a settlement in Chechnya and an end to the war.

Although Mr Saidullayev has limited influence, he does say that he has had talks with representatives of President Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, with whom Moscow refuses to speak.

Mr Saidullayev said: "There are enough people around Maskhadov who are interested in putting an end to gangsterism and terrorism."

Mr Saidullayev has refused to disclose the names of the Chechen commanders who, he says, control 7,000 guerrillas. He is also dubious about Russian claims that their troops will capture Grozny in two or three days.

"It will become possible to seize the city only when rebels leave it themselves, and decide to surrender it to troops," Mr Saidullayev said. "There is still a long way to go before the surrender of Grozny."

The Chechens are believed to have some 2,000 fighters in the capital.

The speed of the Russian advance is likely to depend not only on their resistance, but the willingness of the Russian army to suffer casualties.

Since the start of the war, Moscow has tried to keep its casualties low by relying on superior firepower. But it has also given inaccurate estimates of the number of soldiers killed.