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Grozny devastation shocks envoys

Russia's assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny has caused "unbelievable devastation" reminiscent of the Second World War and left more than one- third of the city's original population of 400,000 cowering in squalid cellars, the British member of a European fact-finding mission said yesterday. "If the Russians are trying to catch a group of bandits they are certainly overdoing it," said Audrey Glover, a British diplomat who visited Grozny on Sunday with four other officials from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "There is no doubt that civilians have been bombed."

"I have never seen anything like it. There is total devastation: street after street after street of bombed out buildings. It is like pictures of the Second World War. There is debris everywhere. Unbelievable devastation," she said last night.

The OSCE delegation flew to the ravaged city from Russia's military headquarters in Mozdok, in neighbouring North Ossetia, and then toured the capital in an armoured personnel carrier, visiting the command bunker of Major-General Ivan Babichev and a makeshift hospital where members were shown a stretcher piled with severed limbs. The group visited the Russian-held town of Znamenskoe, a stronghold of opposition to the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev.

Istvan Gyarmati, the Hungarian head of the delegation, spoke of an "unimaginable catastrophe" and, at a press conference in Moscow, said Moscow had exceeded acceptable limits in its campaign to end Mr Dudayev's rebellion.

"The use of the armed forces on such a scale and the methods they used goes beyond our principles," he said.

Despite claims by President Boris Yeltsin on 19 January that the "military stage" of the operation was "practically over", the delegation was told by General Babichev that the battle was far from finished. He also warned that plague could soon sweep the city and complained angrily of what he said was Moscow's failure to answer his repeated requests for humanitarian assistance for 150,000 people stranded in Grozny.

In the first week of a Russian military offensive launched on 11 December, General Babichev prompted speculation of a mutiny in the ranks with a public condemnation of "unconstitutional orders" from Moscow. On the main road into Grozny from the west, he announced to elderly Chechens and journalists that a column of armour under his command would move no further towards the Chechen capital to avoid killing civilians. He later re-emerged as one of the generals in charge of the assault on central Grozny.

While in Mozdok, the delegation was shown prisoners in a railway carriage converted into a detention centre. Ms Glover said many of the prisoners, who included three Egyptian mechanics and a boy of 14, had black-eyes and had clearly been "roughed up".

Russian officials assured the OSCE that the boy would be released and that the Red Cross would soon be allowed to visit detainees as required by the Geneva Convention.