Kremlin praises architect of Chechen war

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Russia's powerful Security Council yesterday congratulated the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, for organising the crackdown in Chechnya, an operation that has attracted loud condemnation at home and abroad. The 14-man council, which has evolved d uring the Chechen war into Russia's most important organ of authority, praised Mr Grachev for "the completion of military operations in the conflict zone".

Liberal politicians in Moscow and Western governments have denounced the brutality of the campaign in Chechnya, which has involved heavy bombing of civilian areas and has killed many hundreds of people. Some of Mr Grachev's subordinates in the armed forces have criticised him for incompetence and excessive use of force.However, the Security Council's endorsement of Mr Grachev's actions appeared to indicate that there was no threat to his position for the moment. President Boris Yeltsin feels a strong sense of loyalty to Mr Grachev because he made important contributions to the defeat of the attempted conservative coups of August 1991 and October 1993.

The council also approved a proposal to switch control of the campaign from the armed forces to the Interior Ministry, ostensibly less prone to the use of force. However, the decision appeared hollow, since the meeting in Moscow coincided with more Russian attacks in the north Caucasian republic.

The Russians appeared to have crossed the river Sunzha, and were close to capturing all Grozny. The war looks set to move straight to the mountain villages still loyal to the Chechen President, Dzhokhar Dudayev.

Outside the city, and throughout Chechnya and neighbouring Ingushetia, there is an acute shortage of petrol as the bombing has cut pipelines.There are long queues at petrol stations and local people are selling poor quality fuel. The Russian Interior Ministry, Army and Air Force have no problem with petrol, however, judging by the number of vehicles on the roads, aircraft in the air and fuel bowsers marked "fire hazard".

Russian military sources said they would now concentrate on encircling the city, but that is unlikely to pose great problems as the terrain is flat and open, ideal for armour, unlike the shattered city streets. The pro-Russian "opposition" control most of the flat plain around Grozny, and have been assisting Russian forces. "It'll be Afghanistan al over again," said Azamat Nalgiyev, a deputy in the Ingushetian parliament. "There won't be much action on the plain - it's already full of Russian troops."

Mr Dudayev was quoted in the Danish newspaper Information yesterday as saying that his forces had changed tactics and were preparing for a long-term battle. "We particularly blame the US President, Bill Clinton and the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, as well as other members of the United Nations Security Council, because this aggression could never have taken place unless they had accepted it," he said.

The Chechen war has raised such doubts over the reform process in Russia that Mr Yeltsin's government is finding it hard to persuade an International Monetary Fund delegation in Moscow to grant a standby loan of $6.25bn (£3.9bn). The loan would be the largest of its kind in IMF history, but the delegation is reluctant to approve it until it is confident that the government will fulfil a promise to keep the 1995 budget deficit within manageable proportions.

The government has pledged to restrict this year's deficit to 7.7 per cent of gross national product, but even before the Chechen war, it was over 10 per cent. The cost to Chechnya of restoring the republic's economy is put at several billion dollars, enough to put the 7.7 per cent target well out of reach.