Yeltsin vows war must be pressed to a finish

CHECHNYA: Kremlin urges its sullen military commanders to speed up offe nsive but Grozny's defenders defy superior force
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Russia's leaders defied domestic and international opinion yesterday and vowed to press ahead with their military campaign to crush Chechnya's attempted secession. While promising gradually to scale down the war effort, the Russian Security Counci l - a powerful 12-man body chaired by President Boris Yeltsin - resolved that the defeat of forces loyal to Chechnya's leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was the most urgent task.

Mr Yeltsin's office said in a statement: "The Security Council stated that . . . it is vital as soon as possible to overcome armed resistance and fully disarm and eliminate illegal armed groups in order to restore constitutional legality and order on Chechen territory."

With Chechen guerrillas in control of much of Grozny and Russian shells crashing into the city every five minutes, Mr Yeltsin seemed no closer to resolving the crisis that has shattered his image at home and abroad as the champion of Russian reform. "I think that President Yeltsin has to realise that he is really losing his credit here," said Belgium's Foreign Minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, in a remark reflecting Western dismay at the turn of events in Russia.

Mr Yeltsin told the Security Council that political efforts to end the Chechen drama should not be abandoned, and ordered his Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to begin putting a peace process in motion. But the general emphasis of Russian policy still seems heavily weighted towards a military solution.

When Russia's human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, met Mr Yeltsin after the Security Council meeting and suggested that he should call a truce over this weekend's Russian Orthodox Christmas, he said the President had replied: "It's too early for that."

Mr Kovalyov, a passionate critic of the Chechen war who has spent much time in Grozny since the crackdown started on 11 December, said Mr Yeltsin had made virtually no remarks during their meeting. "The President mostly kept quiet, made some isolated remarks and objected to what I was saying. Among other things he disagreed when I said he did not have enough information. He said he was amply provided with information."

However, Mr Yeltsin himself opened the Security Council meeting - in front of reporters - by saying he wanted firm information on whether the armed forces had disobeyed his order on Wednesday to stop the bombing of Grozny. "I have information that this decision was not fulfilled," he said, in what appeared a startling public admission that some military commanders are out of his control.

The Security Council said most Chechen heavy weapons had been destroyed or put out of action and that conditions had been created for a pro-Moscow government-in-waiting to take over in Grozny. However, the credibility of such statements is seriously in doubt after official predictions earlier this week that Grozny would fall without a fight by Thursday or yesterday.

Chechen morale still seems high despite the Russian pounding of Grozny. Fighters carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and shouting "Allahu-akbar" ("God is great") yesterday controlled the area around the presidential palace, where about 100 Russian soldiers are kept prisoner.

That Mr Yeltsin is playing for the highest stakes was made clear in remarks by Sergei Shakhrai, a senior adviser responsible for information policy on the Chechen war. He said the crisis "might have repercussions that could erase Russia from the map as an independent player in world history".

If the Kremlin made concessions to Mr Dudayev, the government would resign, Russia's regions would stop paying taxes to Moscow and declare independence, there would be immediate presidential elections, and "there would be a very high chance of a military-political coup", Mr Shakhrai said.

"One thing is clear: the fate of Russia depends on solving the crisis in Chechnya," he added.

But in a comment reflecting the widespread public disillusion with Mr Yeltsin, Mr Kovalyov said: "The fate of Russia is one thing, the fate of its President another."