Grozny will soon be at the mercy of Russian forces

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The Independent Online

THE RUSSIAN army will take the heights overlooking Grozny but has not yet decided whether to assault the Chechen capital itself, its commander said yesterday.

THE RUSSIAN army will take the heights overlooking Grozny but has not yet decided whether to assault the Chechen capital itself, its commander said yesterday.

"We don't yet know if we will take Grozny. We have the capacity to take it. We do know that we will occupy the heights around Grozny," said General Viktor Kazantsev, the commander of Russian forces in the north Caucasus.

Russian units were reported in Moscow to be 12 miles from Grozny, which the Chechens recaptured in 1996 in the climactic battle of the last war. The city is still largely in ruins and the main reason for capturing it, from the Russian point of view, is to inflict a symbolic defeat on the Chechens. An attack on Grozny would draw Russian troops into the same savage street fighting in which they have suffered heavy losses in the past.

Russian artillery was yesterday pounding the villages of Goragorsky, Pervomaiskoye and Dolinsky north-west of the Chechen capital, but Russian armoured columns seemed to be inching forward very slowly.

The main Russian forces have hitherto remained in the flat steppe north of the Terek river, occupying one-third of Chechnya. If they break through the river line they move into a range of low grassy hills with few trees where it would be difficult for Chechen guerrillas to ambush them.

The aims of the Russian army - and its means of achieving them - still appear contradictory. General Kazantsev said yesterday: "The second stage of the anti-terrorist operation is to stamp out the armed gangs over the remaining part of Chechnya." But that would mean occupying the whole country, a decision that General Kazantsev implied has not yet been taken in Moscow.

The Russian commander also said he did not intend to bomb peaceful villages, but Russian tactics have hitherto been to keep down their own casualties by heavy use of air power and artillery. This has led to civilian casualties and the flight of 157,000 Chechen refugees to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.

Russia and Chechnya have yet to commit their forces fully. The Russians admit to losing 47 soldiers killed since 25 October and claim to have killed 2,000 Chechen fighters, an unlikely figure given that would amount to one-tenth of Chechen fighting strength. Russia said its attack fighters yesterday destroyed a convoy of gunmen. President Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, said his forces had lost 32 men and killed 1,500 Russians.

As well as attacking from the north, Russian forces are trying to capture the small village of Bamut, close to the border with Ingushetia and the scene of a legendary battle in 1995. Situated on the edge of the plain with the wooded foothills of the Caucasus behind it, Chechen fighters held off repeated Russian attacks for a year. Some 100 men were reported yesterday to be fighting in the village.

Holding out a small olive branch, General Kazantsev said he did not reject talks with Mr Maskhadov. Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, is demanding, however, that Mr Maskhadov first hand over Shamil Basayev, a powerful Chechen warlord who invaded Dagestan in August, and Khatab, an Islamic leader from Saudi Arabia who has fought in Chechnya since 1995.

So far at least the Russian army has avoided any military disaster, such as the first day of the war in 1994 when its troops were slaughtered as they tried to enter Grozny. General Kazantsev says there is no comparison between the present conflict and the last. "It was stupid for a division to try to take Grozny. Now it is a different story. Our country has truth, strength and brains," he said.

Russian officials say they are hoping to win the support of ordinary Chechens fed up with banditry by offering aid and a normal life. A similar tactic was tried last time, but over $1bn (£600m) disappeared with no reconstruction happening.Many Chechens say they are disillusioned with the inability of the government to end kidnaps and corruption but expect nothing better from Russians.