Defenders make final stand in nuclear bunker

CHECHNYA: Rebel army takes shape in the Caucasus as Chechen hopes flick er in burnt-out rubble of Grozny's presidential palace
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The Independent Online
After a day of fierce shelling and air strikes against the Chechen capital of Grozny, Russia last night said it had conquered Freedom Square in front of the presidential palace where heavily armed rebels and their terrified Russian prisoners await the end in a deep Soviet-era bunker built to withstand a nuclear attack.

A statement from the Ministry of Defence in Moscow said Russian troops had taken control of Chechnya's government headquarters opposite the palace and "effectively have full control" of the ravaged city's main square. Blockaded but not yet seized, the statement said, were the nearby Chechen interior ministry and the security service compound.

The reported successes, however, brought no respite for President Boris Yeltsin. Russia's State Duma yesterday voted 236-1 in favour of a non-binding resolution demanding an end to the war. Parliament also set up a commission to investigate the entire conflict, a possibly more dangerous decision for Mr Yeltsin as any inquest will air not only the murky decision-making that started the war, but also that which allowed Chechnya to gain control of Soviet weapons left on its territory three years ago.

Earlier yesterday, Russia's Justice Minister, Valentin Kovalyov, said Chechen rebels, hammered by two days of ferocious artillery fire, were holding out in only four buildings. The conflict, he said, was irreversible. "All are blockaded. They are not being shelled and no attempts are being made to storm them." Mr Kovalyov said that troops would "complete their task of disarming illegal armed groups in Chechnya within one week".

Russia has repeatedly underestimated resistance since it sent armour into the breakaway region on 11 December but the sheer numbers and firepower of Russia's reinforced army has allowed it to tighten its grip on the city centre.

But short of Chechen surrender, the capture of the presidential palace will be difficult. The standard military tactic for flushing out an enemy bunker -high-powered flame-throwers - would incinerate captured Russian soldiers. And even when the bunker falls, Russia still risks a long guerrilla war, particularly in the Caucasus mountains along Chechnya's borders with Dagestan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia to the south.

Russian forces pounded the centre of Grozny throughout yesterday with shells and rockets. With fires blazing from gas leaks and the wreckage of bombed-out buildings, the majority of what used to be a population of 400,000 has fled, though some civilians,many of them old and infirm, remain.

Despite widespread condemnation of Russia and abroad Moscow shows no sign of halting or even slowing what is probably the decisive stage of a military campaign that has killed nearly 400 Russian soldiers, according to official figures, and many more civilians and Chechen fighters.

Mr Yeltsin has suggested discontent with his Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, but the Kremlin's principal response to a barrage of criticism has been to attack the media. Itar-Tass yesterday reported an imminent "reorganisation" of Russia's only independent television channel NTV, which has enraged the government with daily reports from the battlefront that have made a mockery of official communiques.

According to an opinion poll published yesterday only eight per cent of the public support the Chechen campaign entirely while 47 per cent oppose any form of military intervention and 32 per cent believe action was needed but not an assault that caused so many casualties.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton also demanded an end to the bloodshed, signalling his patience was wearing thin.