Chechens in bloody protest

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The Independent Online
GROZNY (Reuter) - First blood has been shed in a battle for power in Russia's rebellious self-proclaimed Chechen republic after 10 days of angry street protests, police said. But they were unable to confirm eyewitness reports by members of a crowd milling outside the Police Ministry building, who said one man had been killed and four injured when a grenade launcher was fired into the police headquarters on Saturday.

'It's impossible to say for the moment exactly who was injured and how badly,' yelled one heavily armed police officer from behind a wall of riot shields at the ministry entrance. 'We think a grenade launcher fired at us from that roof opposite. But we can't be sure.'

The police building has become the focus of a struggle for control of the capital, Grozny, between supporters and opponents of the Chechen republic's flamboyant President, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who declared independence from Russia 18 months ago.

The violence broke out on the eve of yesterday's Russian referendum on support for President Boris Yeltsin, in which Chechnya is the only region that has refused to take part. Each side accuses the other of being Moscow's pawn. The rival sides have camped out in their thousands in two city squares as Mr Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general, and opposition leaders battle for power.

Mr Dudayev sacked the Interior Minister, Sharpudin Larsanov, last week after Mr Larsanov refused to disperse the opposition protesters, and appointed his own candidate to the post. Policemen inside the building declared their support for the opposition and refused to let Mr Dudayev's candidate enter. Mr Dudayev's supporters have been massed outside the ministry since Friday, trying to force an entry. Mr Larsanov is still working inside.

Silhouetted in brilliant spring sunshine along two roofs opposite were lines of heavily-armed men from the President's militia. On Saturday, an opposition crowd, led by chanting old men in tall lambskin papakha hats, gathered at the building on Grozny's main avenue linking the two squares where protesters have pitched camp. Shouted arguments between the two persisted all day.

The opposition wants the President and cabinet to resign, parliament to impeach the President, and a referendum on whether to scrap the presidential system altogether and revert to government by parliament.

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