Dudayev `flees' as army nears his palace

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The Independent Online
Russia's armed forces pounded Grozny with artillery fire yesterday and advanced to within a few hundred yards of the city's presidential palace, the symbol of Chechen defiance of Russian authority. The Russian government said Dzhokhar Dudayev, th e Chechen President, had fled the capital and set up his headquarters in the village of Galanchezh, 25 miles south-west of Grozny.

Russia claimed President Dudayev had left the city on Friday with his bodyguards, adding that the Chechen Security Minister, Sultan Geliskhanov, had also fled Grozny. Both reports were unconfirmed but it was evident that bands of Chechen guerrillas were slipping out of the centre of Grozny and head south, in an apparent attempt to cut their losses and organise resistance from safer bases.

Authorities in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia alleged that Russian planes had bombed mountain villages in southern Chechnya, but there was no independent confirmation. President Boris Yeltsin ordered a halt to air strikes on Grozny last Wednesday but acknowledged later that the air force had not fully obeyed its orders.

The clashes in the Chechen capital were especially fierce on Saturday, the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Shells rained on Chechen positions throughout the day, sometimes at a rate of one every three or four seconds. Fires blazed in the upper floors of the presidential palace, where about 100 Russian soldiers were being held prisoner in the basement.

The Russian army, surprised at the scale and sophistication of Chechen resistance, appears to have given up its attempt to capture Grozny in a tank assault. Instead, it is wearing down the Chechens by relentless bombardment of buildings and by sealing off guerrilla units from each other inside the city.

At the same time, the Russians do not seem to have made a concerted effort to prevent Chechen fighters from leaving Grozny to regroup outside later on. "Chechen commanders, seeking to shift the centre of resistance to the Russian troops from Grozny to the periphery, continue to withdraw their forces from Grozny in a southern direction," a Russian communique said.

The defence ministry said Russian forces had killed about 2,500 Chechen fighters since the crackdown to end Chechnya's secession started on 11 December. Witnesses say many of the Chechen dead are civilians killed in the first three weeks of air attacks.

The war has had a devastating impact on Chechen life, with at least 130,000 people - more than 10 per cent of the republic's population - fleeing their homes. But commanders continue to recruit new fighters in the villages of southern Chechnya, and basesare being established in remote mountainous regions on the border with Dagestan.

Russia's own losses were estimated last Friday at 256 dead, a figure that includes Interior Ministry troops as well as ordinary army servicemen. The commander of the interior ministry forces in Chechnya, General Viktor Vorobyov, was killed in a mortar explosion on Saturday morning as he prepared to move his headquarters in Grozny.

Russia's human rights commissioner, the former dissident Sergei Kovalyov, joined the chairman of parliament, Ivan Rybkin, over the weekend in issuing a call for a ceasefire and the surrender of heavy weapons in Chechnya. Mr Kovalyov, who has emerged as the spearhead of public opposition to the war, met Mr Yeltsin on Friday but failed in an attempt to persuade him to declare a truce over the Russian Christmas.

The chorus of protest was joined yesterday by a top Russian general, who described the intervention in Chechnya is "criminal and stupid". Alexander Lebed, who commands the 14th army corps in Trans-Dnestria, a Russian-held area of the Republic of Moldova.Moscow's troops in Chechnya were nothing but "a shapeless and disorganised group of men, which doesn't know itself or know where it's going," the general said.

With Russia "in the process of committing the same mistakes as in Afghanistan," the intervention now risked engulfing the entire Caucasus region, he added.

"The military intervention has failed and even if the capital Grozny falls, it will be useless," he said, adding that this would only result in uniting all Chechens in a war of liberation in Russia. Winning a war against a people up in arms never benefitted anyone."