Russian troops on alert over Chechnya

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JOKHAR DUDAYEV, the leader of the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya, appears to have given a bloody lesson to Moscow-backed opponents in a battle at the weekend. But it remains to be seen whether General Dudayev - who served in the Soviet air force in Afghanistan and has the advantage of being on his own mountainous Caucasian territory - could survive if the Kremlin made a concerted effort to oust him.

The battle raged 10 miles east of the Chechen capital of Grozny in the town of Argun, the stronghold of an opposition group commanded by Ruslan Labazanov. There were few details, as telephone lines between Moscow and Chechnya were cut and Russian journalists expelled from the Muslim region. But Tass news agency, with access to opposition sources, said General Dudayev's forces attacked Argun from three sides with artillery and aircraft. Casualties on both sides were heavy and Mr Labazanov fled towards the cholera-stricken Russian region of Dagestan to the east.

Mr Labazanov is a colourful character. A convicted criminal, he declared a blood vendetta against General Dudayev after the regime executed one of his relatives. Ruslan Khasbulatov, the ethnic Chechen former Russian parliamentary chairman who rebelled against President Boris Yeltsin last year, has been helping Mr Labazanov. According to Tass, Mr Khasbulatov sent 70 men from his headquarters in the Chechen village of Tolstoy-Yurt in an unsuccessful attempt to save the fighters in Argun.

Hatred for General Dudayev unites Mr Labazanov and Mr Khasbulatov and the Chechen Provisional Council under Umar Avturkhanov, although the latter is receiving comfort from Mr Khasbulatov's erstwhile enemy, Mr Yeltsin. Moscow, which turned a blind eye to General Dudayev's 1991 declaration of UDI, is now encouraging and financing Mr Avturkhanov after a spate of hijackings by Chechens in southern Russia earlier this year brought its patience with the Grozny regime to an end.

Russia, however, insists it has no plans to intervene directly in Chechnya, despite repeated claims from Grozny that Moscow is preparing an invasion. Yesterday, the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, put troops around Chechnya on red alert but said this was only to make sure the conflict did not spread into Russia, and he stressed that Russian troops had not been involved in the fighting.