Russia charges Chechen leader

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The Independent Online
In a move that makes any negotiation with Chechnya not only unlikely but illegal, Russia yesterday issued a formal arrest warrant against Dzhokhar Dudayev, the former Soviet bomber pilot who has led the renegade region's nearly two-month-long war against Russia. The Russian prosecutor's office charged Mr Dudayev with four separate crimes, including treason which, according to the official news agency Itar-Tass, "is in itself enough to get a death sentence". The clarity of Moscow's determination to press ahead with its military campaign to rid Chechnya of Mr Dudayev, however, was quickly clouded by an announcement that Russia's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, had gone into hospital and reports of a grisly stalemate in Grozny.

The Defence Ministry said General Grachev, who met Mr Dudayev early in December to disavow violence but later emerged as a bellicose champion of military action, was undergoing routine checks in Moscow. A news agency, Postfactum, said he had spent two days in a suburban clinic.

General Grachev is the latest in a string of officials connected with the Chechen campaign to disappear into hospital. The head of a now-defunct temporary press office bowed out because of illness early in the war, while Nikolai Yegorov, a hardline minister responsible for nationalities, was last week said to be in hospital for lung surgery.

President Boris Yeltsin, who two weeks ago declared the military stage of the operation "practically over", spent the first fortnight of the war recovering from a nose operation.

The listing of formal charges against Mr Dudayev's seems part of Moscow's efforts to maintain at least the pretence that military action will soon give way to a period of reconstruction and constitutional order.

Aside from treason, he has also been charged with encouraging terrorism, instigating racial and ethnic hatred and with violating Russian legislation on referendums.

As well as sealing any remaining avenue for possible peace talks, the action also ensures Mr Dudayev will play no legal role in the elections Moscow has promised for Chechnya once the fighting there has ended.

An official government communique yesterday alleged that Mr Dudayev had sent an envoy to Turkey to explore the possibility of political asylum. Turkey was said to have responded "negatively". Moscow has repeatedly issued reports, that were quickly provedwrong, of Mr Dudayev taking flight. The Chechen leader has vowed to fight to the end.

Far from having completed their mission, Russian forces appear increasingly bogged down amid the rubble of the Chechen capital of Grozny, despite weeks of intensive artillery and mortar attacks and total command of the air by the Russian Air Force.

Itar-Tass yesterday reported that two battalions of marines from Russia's Pacific Fleet had taken control of bridges over the River Sunzha, a dividing line between Russian- and Chechen-controlled portions of the city. But there was no confirmation of earlier Russian claims that its forces had crossed the river and were sweeping through Chechen-held sectors.

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