Russia sets Chechnya target

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The Independent Online

Russia's military offensive should finish off militants in breakaway Chechnya within three months, and maybe in as little as one month, Russia's defence minister predicted today.

Russia's military offensive should finish off militants in breakaway Chechnya within three months, and maybe in as little as one month, Russia's defence minister predicted today.

Russian leaders have been forecasting the rapid demise of the militants since Moscow sent troops into the territory more than two months ago. Earlier statements said the Chechen fighters would be eliminated by the end of the year.

The Russian forces advanced rapidly to the outskirts of the Chechen capital Grozny, but the rebels have put up increasingly fierce resistance in recent days.

"The bandits' situation is getting worse," Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said Wednesday in Moscow. The operation will probably continue for another "one, two or three months."

Russia was similarly upbeat when it sent troops into Chechnya in 1994, only to withdraw its forces two years later, giving the tiny Muslim territory effective independence.

The front-line fighting in Chechnya is now focused on towns ringing Grozny as the Russian seek to encircle the city. Argun, 5 kilometers (three miles) east of Grozny, has been the scene of sustained fighting in recent days, and Sergeyev said the Russians would have full control there by the end of the week.

"Argun has been blocked (by the Russian forces) and I think that the town will be liberated over the next two or three days," he said.

The ITAR-Tass news agency said a delegation of residents from Argun had asked the Russians to stop shelling their town because they claimed that all Chechen fighters had fled and were hiding in nearby forests.

The report said one Russian soldier was killed Tuesday night and another wounded in a battle outside Argun. The Russians killed 25 rebels and destroyed an ammunition depot, according to ITAR-Tass.

The city of Urus-Martan, 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Grozny, has also been the site of heavy fighting in recent days, and Grozny itself has been hammered with artillery rounds and air strikes for the past week.

Meanwhile, a European human rights delegation arrived in neighboring Dagestan to discuss the plight of residents affected by the fighting.

Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, traveled to a mountainous Dagestan-Chechnya border region that was the scene of heavy fighting in August.

The latest round of fighting in the Caucasus Mountains region began in early August, when militants from Chechnya crossed over into Dagestan.

The militants were eventually driven back into Chechnya by Russian forces, who then entered the territory in September after a series of apartment bombings in Russia that left 300 dead and were blamed on the militants.

The Russians are trying to recruit Chechens to fight alongside the Russian troops, and Russian commanders on Tuesday gave automatic rifles and uniforms to a pro-Moscow militia.

The Chechen group is led by Bislan Gantamirov, a former mayor of Grozny who was serving a prison term for embezzlement before Russian President Boris Yeltsin pardoned him recently and named him to lead a Moscow-backed Chechen government.

Gantamirov said he would encourage Chechen rebel fighters to defect to his group, but didn't say exactly what military role the force would play. Gantamirov led a previous, Moscow-backed militia in 1994 that was defeated by separatist fighters.

Also, Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships carried out 45 air raids on Tuesday, targetinter months in the Caucasus Mountains, have forced Russia to scale back its aerial campaign in recent days, but artillery guns have been firing around the clock.

The military regularly bombs plants, factories and other civilian economic installations, saying that some of the items could be used to help the militants. Chechnya's economy was all but destroyed in the 1994-6 war, and the latest onslaught has flattened much of the infrastructure that survived the previous conflict.

More than 233,000 refugees - almost a third of Chechnya's population - have fled the fighting.