Paras look set to move on capital

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The Independent Online
President Yeltsin said yesterday he wanted a date fixed for the end of military operations in Chechnya. But in an extraordinary move, the commander of Russia's airborne forces, upon whom the Russians are now depending to restore some military cre dibility, gave him one. Colonel-General Yevgeny Podkolzin, said it would take until the end of January to capture Grozny.

Such an outspoken statement suggests the armed forces may be drawing Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, into a trap. Having gone so far in its attempt to overthrow the Chechen rebellion by force, the Russian government is committed to continue, in the face of increasing international condemnation, and yesterday the Russian Security Council, an influential non-elected body advising the President , comparable with the old Politburo, demanded a military victory to "disarm and eliminate" the Chechen resistance, though negotiations with the breakaway regime of Dzhokhar Dudayev would continue.

President Yeltsin also demanded to know at the security council meeting why the Russian air force had carried on bombing targets in Grozny in apparent defiance of his orders, again, to General Grachev's embarrassment.

Interfax quoted Mr Yeltsin as saying at the Security Council meeting: "According to my information, the air bombing has not stopped. This is why I am waiting for precise information from the defence minister."

Interfax also quoted General Grachev as complaining just ahead of the meeting that a campaign was being waged against the army. He criticised "certain members of the Security Council" for not "presenting the activities of the armed forces in the best light."

Meanwhile, Russia continued to reinforce its ground forces with better quality troops. Reports from Grozny indicate the Chechen defenders expect a renewed Russian assault in the next few days, as Russian artillery has continued to prepare the way for an infantry attack, including shelling a key bridge in the city.

In London, diplomatic sources voiced concern that Russia's problems were prejudicing the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which puts strict limits on the forces to be deployed in particular areas, and which is due for renewal in 1996. One diplomatic source said: "They were already over the top before Chechnya and if they don't meet the deadline they will be in violation. That would be serious."

The ineptitude of the Russian effort in Chechnya is particularly embarrassing for General Grachev because in April 1993 he said that Russia should strengthen the North Caucasus Military district - the command responsible for the Chechnya operation , "first of all", because of its proximity to likely trouble spots including Georgia and Nagorny Karabakh.

Reports from the region said large numbers of Russian paratroops had been sighted although yesterday it was unclear whether these were from the 76th Pskov Airborne Division already based in the area or extra troops from outside - possibly 106th Airborne Division, based in Tula, near Moscow. Elements of both divisions have been in the area and the reports suggest they are being concentrated for an attack. The latest reports are consistent with Russian announcements that their forces in the area were being stiffened with specialist troops after the debacle suffered by low-grade mechanised troops.

The Russians are unlikely to attempt to use the airborne troops in anything as complex as a parachute assault. Having committed itself to the assault on Grozny, Moscow has little option but to continue until it has scored some success..

As the Russian army and public opinion appear not to be up to a sustained campaign, isolating Chechnya, securing the capital and then conducting a prolonged war against guerrillas remains the only option. .