Rebels fall back as Russians take control of Grozny

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The Independent Online
Russian forces had yesterday pushed south and west to control most of Grozny, having made rapid gains since they entered the ruined presidential palace and recaptured the key railway station in the city centre three days before.

Only the south-west of the city appeared in Chechen hands, and the front line was moving fast in that direction. President Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen rebel leader, is reported to still be in the city.

On Friday the commander of the operation, Lieutenant-General A Kvashnin, 48, said the most difficult part of the operation - capturing Grozny - was virtually finished.

In Moscow, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, said he hoped General Pavel Grachev would remain as Defence Minister, but many mistakes had been made and someone would have to be held accountable.

A key bridge over a frozen stream on the main road into Grozny from the west, 15 kilometres from the city centre and well inside Chechen-held territory, was blown up on Saturday morning, leaving a gaping 10-metre gap into which a pale yellow van had crashed. Chechen fighters, diverting traffic around it along a forest track, said it was definitely the anti-Dudayev Oppositsiya who were responsible and not the Russian special forces.

As far as the Chechen fighters were concerned the Oppositsiya and the Russian forces were in effect working together. With fighting between Chechen factions, it is hard to see how they can withstand the overwhelming Russian forces for much longer.

In Grozny, at the reservoir by the suburb of Chernhye, shelling and small-arms fire could be heard close by. The front line was two kilometres away at the car factory and at the Okruzhnaya estate, where on Wednesday children had been tobogganing. Now it was under sniper fire and Russian artillery fire, and air attacks were hitting Chernorechye, the south-west corner of the city.

On Saturday, one block of flats had been hit by a Russian deep penetration bomb which had ploughed through nine floors before exploding "Tomorrow the front line will be here," said one resident.

The Russians are also closing the ring around the city. North of Samashki on the road in, small-arms fire could be heard.

In Moscow yesterday, Orthodox priests and Muslim clerics led an ethnically-mixed crowd of several hundred people in a ceremony of mourning for the victims of the fighting in Chechnya. The gathering was organised by Sergei Kovalyov and Yegor Gaidar, two Russian public figures who have emerged as the main critics of President Boris Yeltsin's use of force in the separatist Caucasian region.

Opinion polls indicate Mr Yeltsin's campaign against the Muslim Chechens is far from popular with ordinary Russians. At the very least, they see their hopes for a better standard of living jeopardised by the costly operation. At worst, they could lose a relative in the war.

Yesterday, Itar-Tass news agency reported that a group of about 35 Russian mothers had set off for Grozny to look for their sons. Casualty figures vary enormously, and many Russian soldiers are missing. The Ministry of Defence in Moscow is not being veryhelpful in giving families information: it has only one telephone help-line for the whole of Russia, which is either engaged or rings without answer. The mothers have taken the task of finding their boys into their own hands.

General Dudayev is reported to have promised the release of Russian POWs if their parents come to collect them.

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