Russia wreaks revenge for downed plane

Neither Western threats nor rebel successes are diverting Yeltsin from his course, writes Helen Womack in Moscow
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The Independent Online
Russian forces launched another heavy artillery attack on Grozny yesterday, apparently to punish the Chechen rebels for shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber at the weekend.

The Muslim guerrillas, copying the tactics of the Afghans who harried Soviet troops from their country, have destroyed a number of Russian helicopter gunships. But Saturday's hit was the first time they have brought down a high-altitude aircraft.

Exasperated at the defiance of the rag-tag Chechen army, Russian forces intensified attacks on Grozny and surrounding villages at the weekend, saying they were "going in for the kill" to finish off resistance. They succeeded in cutting off one of the last remaining roads into Grozny. But a small group of Chechen fighters in the village of Belgatoi embarrassed the huge Russian military machine by shooting down an SU-25 fighter-bomber, using an anti-aircraft gun.

Observers predicted that the Russians would quickly retaliate for the loss of their aircraft and this appeared to happen yesterday when they began again to shell Grozny and the southern suburb of Aldy.

Tass news agency, the Kremlin's mouthpiece in the eight-week war, at first denied that the fighter-bomber had been shot down. But officials at Russia's military headquarters in Mozdok, North Ossetia, were later obliged to admit that they had lost an SU-25 with its crew. The SU-25s have been flying relentlessly over Grozny, bombing residential areas where civilians - many of them ethnic Russians - are still cowering in basements.

Sergei Yushenkov, chairman of the Russian State Duma's defence committee and a strong critic of the use of force in Chechnya, told a conference in Germany at the weekend that 20,000 people had already been killed in the conflict. The West should take a stronger stand, he said, as Russia's military operation had "assumed the scale of a crime against humanity".

Anxious not to offend President Boris Yeltsin, the West at first declared that Chechnya was Russia's internal affair, but has now started to express increasing concern.

At a meeting in Toronto over the weekend, the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations warned the Kremlin that the war was jeopardising economic reform and endangering Western support for Russia.

Now that Russia has become bogged down in Chechnya, it will be hard to extricate itself. After the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, went into hospital last week, some liberal Russian newspapers speculated that President Yeltsin might be about to use the general's illness as a pretext for sacking him and revising policy towards the breakaway region.

But General Grachev's spokesman said yesterday that his boss would be coming out of hospital this week and returning to work, supervising the campaign to return Chechnya to Russian jurisdiction.

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