Grozny under siege as Russian tanks roll in

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The Independent Online

Russian tanks were reported yesterday to have launched a further assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny. Chechen officials insisted their forces had destroyed three Russian tanks and killed nearly 100 soldiers as they resisted the Russian advance. Fighting was raging in the west and north of the capital, according to the head of the Chechen armed forces.

Russian tanks were reported yesterday to have launched a further assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny. Chechen officials insisted their forces had destroyed three Russian tanks and killed nearly 100 soldiers as they resisted the Russian advance. Fighting was raging in the west and north of the capital, according to the head of the Chechen armed forces.

The Russians earlier closed the road from Grozny to the west, preventing any more Chechens fleeing to Ingushetia to join the 168,000 already there. President Ruslan Aushev, the Ingush leader, said: "The way the [Russian] army is behaving is like a military dictatorship. They feel there is no control over them and they can do anything they want."

President Boris Yeltsin meanwhile, and Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, held talks in the Kremlin. Mr Yeltsin, in his first public endorsement of the campaign, said Mr Putin had done "useful work". Mr Putin has seen his popularity increase since Russian troops entered Chechnya. Ground fighting has so far largely been confined to skirmishing. Deteriorating weather, as winter closes in, may make the use of Russian air power more difficult.

In the heaviest civilian casualties since missiles hit the market place in Grozny last Thursday, people in the village of Serzhen-Yurt say that 27 civilians were killed in an air attack on Sunday.

Russian strategy appears to be to press slowly forward behind a heavy artillery barrage, holding back its tanks and infantry, which were frequently ambushed in the last war in 1994-96. Mr Putin said that at a meeting with European Union leaders in Helsinki last week he was able to calm their fears over Chechnya. He said: "We gave exhaustive explanations, which satisfied the participants in the Helsinki meeting." Mr Putin claimed at the meeting that a fight between Chechen gangs had led to the destruction of Grozny market with heavy civilian casualties.

Russian tanks were reported yesterday to be moving off the hills south-eastwards from the Terek river towards the airport, long disused, on the outskirts of the capital. The Russian generals may try to surround Grozny , but the Chechens are likely to fight hard for the heavily populated area the Russian forces are now beginning to enter.

The problem for Mr Putin is that his political career now depends on a successful war, but he is unlikely to achieve this unless he occupies the whole of Chechnya. It is doubtful if Russia has the military forces for such a prolonged struggle, in which they would suffer heavy casualties.

The Russian official spokesmen continue to issue heavy-handed propaganda suggesting that the Chechen fighters are demoralised and Chechen civilians welcome the Russian army. Many Chechens are disillusioned by three years of de facto independence, but any sympathy for Moscow is likely to be diminished by the bombing of towns and villages.

Contradictory statements, at once claiming and denying responsibility for the carnage in Grozny market, show that Russian political and military strategy is unco-ordinated.

Mr Putin has so far closed the door to negotiations. In Moscow the police have arrested Mairbek Vachagayev, the envoy of President Aslan Maskhadov of Chechnya. He is accused of carrying a firearm. The Chechens say they will not negotiate with Mr Putin, whom they blame for starting the war.

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