Russia prepares to vote, as Chechen war goes on

Russia desperately wanted the war in Chechnya to be over by this weekend, when it votes for a new president, but it is anything but over. Yesterday Russian troops had all but cleared the village of Komsomolskoye in southern Chechnya for which they have been battling for two weeks.

Marshal Igor Sergeyev, the Russian Defence Minister, said only 20 to 50 rebels were still fighting in the ruins. "We are waiting to crush them," he said.

The presidential spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said the rebels would probably regroup for an immediate attack or "wait until the mountains are green". Chechen guerrillas traditionally like to fight in spring when the new foliage gives them cover from Russian air attacks.

The struggle for Komsomolskoye underlies the slow progress made by the Russian army since it invaded Chechnya six months ago in a war which is likely to make its prime architect, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia on Sunday.

Despite continual claims by the Kremlin that the army is simply mopping up the remnants of the rebel forces, the fighting is likely to intensify after the presidential election. Already Russian military casualties exceed 6,000, higher than the losses suffered over the same period in the last Chechen war in 1994-96.

Since the fall of Grozny, the Chechen capital, the bloody fighting in the mountains of southern Chechnya has received only limited international attention. But the Russian army is clearly failing to pin down and destroy rebel units while the trees are bare and its air power should be at its maximum effectiveness.

The army has suffered heavy losses in a series of recent ambushes and surprise attacks. A company of paratroopers from Pskov in north-west Russia lost 85 men when it was surrounded by guerrillas at the beginning of the month. Another unit from the city lost 25 men in fighting a week earlier.

The Russian army's official position is that "guerrilla warfare" is not going on because this would imply the rebels have popular support but in reality, guerrilla attacks appear to be spreading. Mr Yastrzhembsky admitted yesterday shots had been fired at the notorious Chernokozovo prison in northern Chechnya, an area overrun by Russia in the first weeks of the campaign.

The army does seem to be fighting more resolutely than in the last war. Rebel fighters reaching the neighbouring republics of Georgia and Ingushetia say they suffered heavy losses during the retreat from Grozny and from Russian attacks in the mountains. But they also say they have little choice but to fight on.

Ironically, it is doubtful if the Chechen rebel commanders did have the necessary popular support in the first couple of months of the war. Ordinary Chechens berated the Russians but say their own leaders, often semi-professional criminals, had behaved almost as badly during the three years of Chechnya's de facto independence.

However, mass arrests of young Chechen men by the Russians and stories of their subsequent torture ensure that the rebels can find recruits.

One temptation for Moscow is to remove the support on which the rebels depend by deporting the entire civilian population. Sergei Dorenko, a television broadcaster, said: "If we were to recognise there is no civilian population in Chechnya we could finish the war in two weeks, instead of 20 years. The other alternative for Mr Putin is to negotiate."

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