Conflict may engulf region, says Caucasus leader

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The Russian army battered the Chechen town of Urus-Martan with artillery fire yesterday as the military pressed its attempt to force the departure of local guerrillas.

The Russian army battered the Chechen town of Urus-Martan with artillery fire yesterday as the military pressed its attempt to force the departure of local guerrillas.

The total of refugees may soon rise to 300,000, Russian forces have confirmed. They continue to leave Chechnya under the cover of night by truck and car, for the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia or, through the mountains, to Georgia. Russian forces are keeping their casualties low by relying on their superior firepower. Marshal Igor Sergeyev, the Russian Defence Minister, said his forces "are not engaged in active combat in Chechnya at present".

The Russian tactic is to bombard villages and towns, to force local leaders to persuade guerrillas to leave. This may not work in Urus-Martan, where the rebels are said to have 3,500 men, or in Grozny, the Chechen capital, in whose ruins some 5,000 men are waiting for the Russian assault.

Yusup Soslambekov, the president of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus, said yesterday: "It should be understood that the war has not begun for the Chechen armed forces. The war has begun for the civilian population. The main hostilities are ahead." He warned that the continued use of force in Chechnya "may lead to the 'Afghanisation' of the entire Caucasus".

So far, however, there is no sign of the war spreading. In Ingushetia during the last Chechen-Russian war, in 1994-96, crowds blocked the passage of Russian convoys with barricades. Today columns of Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and trucks are moving freely through Ingushetia from their bases in North Ossetia further west.

A sign of the strain on Ingushetia, whose population of 300,000 is ethnically the same as in Chechnya, came yesterday with the dismissal of the government by Ruslan Aushev, the Ingush President. Ingushetia is already host to some 200,000 refugees. Mr Aushev said the treatment of the refugees "demonstrated the cabinet's malfunctioning in many spheres".

He added: "A lot of cabinet members were late in averting events. Indifference and a bureaucratic attitude emerged." In Dagestan, to the east of Chechnya, there is also little sympathy for the Chechens, partly because of the invasion by the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev last August.

In Russia, a poll yesterday showed that 33 per cent of people expect Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, whose political fortunes depend on a successful war in Chechnya, to be chosen as the Russian President, succeeding Boris Yeltsin, in the election next year. The methodical Russian advance over the past eight weeks resembles the tactics of Tsarist armies in the 1850s, who finally strangled resistance in the north Caucasus by never giving guerrillas a chance to fight on their own terms. The problem for the Russian army today is that this approach requires very large numbers of troops and plenty of time to wear down the enemy.

Despite Marshal Sergeyev's claim that his forces are being invited in by local residents, in towns such as Gudermes, their long-term loyalty is not guaranteed. Once captured, every Chechen population centre will have to be heavily garrisoned.

Russia shows no sign of allowing outside interference in its war. A government source in Moscow was quoted as saying the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe could only play a role "after the completion of anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya".

Meanwhile, reports yesterday said a Russian attack on a psychiatric hospital about 15 miles south-west of Grozny, on 1 November, killed its chief doctor and wounded three others. Hospital workers who escaped to Ingushetia told the organisation Human Rights Watch that the hospital, which had 30 patients, was marked with the Red Cross emblem.

Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, said: "This attack is a grave breach of international humanitarian law. The Russian government claims it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, but that is simply not true."