Russian rockets bombard defences as troops advance towards Grozny

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The Independent Online

CHECHEN FORCES came under intense bombardment yesterday as Russian troops advanced steadily towards the capital Grozny.

CHECHEN FORCES came under intense bombardment yesterday as Russian troops advanced steadily towards the capital Grozny.

Russian multi rocket launchers were pounding the thin line of Chechen soldiers in foxholes dug in along the south bank of the River Terek, which cuts across the northern third of Chechnya and has effectively become the front line. "The Russians are avoiding close- quarter fighting and hitting us with their long range artillery," said one Chechen soldier, "They will try to push on to Grozny."

Close by, Russian Grad rocket launchers were crashing into Chechen positions and there was the occasional whine of long distance tank fire.

The Chechens hold the south bank of the river which rises precipitously but is fully exposed to Russian fire. They said that they had suffered few casualties but they were armed only with light infantry weapons and anti tank guns.

Although fighting has been concentrated along the River Terek, Moscow earlier indicated that it was preparing for an offensive on Grozny. The Russian defence minister Igor Sergeyev spoke of "liberating" Grozny if "real Chechens" wanted it.

Russian television showed Russian troops yesterday handing out food to villagers, who were said have welcomed them with open arms after the "nightmare" of living under the rule of "terrorists".

In the absence of any deal with the Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Moscow's plan would appear to be to secure the area and then to try to introduce a government in exile made up of deputies from an old regional parliament.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's tough-talking Prime Minister, yesterday made it clear there would be no talks to end the war in Chechnya until the authorities in Grozny handed over the "terrorists" suspected of planting bombs in Dagestan and Moscow.

Mr Putin also refused to rule out the possibility that the Russians would go further and take Grozny.

Echoing propagandists who claimed that Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979 at the invitation of Kabul, Mr Putin said the Russians would only go into Grozny if they were asked but already several requests had been received.

If the Russians do cross the River Terek, the second Russian-Chechen war could turn out to be as bloody as the first conflict from 1994-1996, which ended in a humiliating defeat for Russia.

The Chechens would almost certainly defend Grozny, tooth and claw, and harry the Russians from the craggy Caucasus Mountains which, far more than the northern lowlands, are their true, historic stronghold.

President Maskhadov, often dubbed as "moderate" although his critics call him weak, has promised to crack down on Islamic fundamentalist fighters if Moscow would stop the war it has unleashed on his region.

But Mr Putin, speaking during a trip to the central Russian town of Lipetsk, said the Chechen leader was putting the cart before the horse. "First give us the men whose hands are stained with blood," he said, "and then we will prepare for full-scale talks." Russia has asked Interpol to watch out for the warlord Shamil Basayev, and other Chechen fighters, who recently invaded the region of Dagestan and who Moscow also blames for massive apartment block bombs in Russian cities. Mr Basayev seemed to acknowledge responsibility for the bombings yesterday when he told Western news agencies that he would carry out "more attacks" if Russia did not call off its air force and army.

Mr Putin's response to President Maskhadov, although uncompromising, was at least addressed to the man whom Chechens elected in a free poll in 1997. Earlier, the Russian Prime Minister had seemed to suggest that he did not recognise him any longer, as he publicly endorsed the government in exile.

The head of that government, Malik Saidullayev, a Moscow-based businessman yesterday called on President Maskhadov to resign. "His influence stretches no further than his own security service," said Mr Saidullayev, noting that 1,300 people had been kidnapped in Chechnya in the last three years. For its part, Grozny has denounced the government in exile as a band of traitors.

What is the status of Chechnya?

The Chechens call their small country Ichkeria and consider it independent. As far as Moscow is concerned, it remains a part of the Russian Federation. Positions on both sides have hardened again since the end of the last war in 1996, when the Russians and Chechens agreed to leave the issue of Chechnya's status open until after 2000. Foreign countries have not recognised Chechen independence. Moderate Chechens say it is precisely because the world has shunned them that extremists have taken the upper hand.