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Moscow revels as Grozny burns

Nine burnt-out Russian tanks stood yesterday in the smoke-filled ruins of central Grozny, proof that Moscow's new year military offensive is meeting determined resistance from the fighters of Chechnya. Fires gutted apartment buildings and damaged an oil refinery over the weekend as truckloads of Chechens arrived in Grozny to defend their republic's effort to win independence from Russia.

The conflict is the worst on Russian soil since the Second World War and cast a shadow over new year celebrations, traditionally the biggest Russian party of the year. In what seemed execrable taste, one Moscow television station broadcast a late-night show starring singers dressed in Russian military uniforms and bellowing out the Tom Jones hit "Delilah".

Among those spotted in the audience at this show were the reformist economist Grigory Yavlinsky, a critic of Russia's crackdown in Chechnya, and the Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, a vocal supporter of the intervention. Neither Mr Yavlinsky, sipping the viscous Russian equivalent of champagne, nor Mr Kozyrev, smoking a cigar, appeared troubled by the knowledge that Russia's commanders had just launched their most ferocious assault on Grozny since the crackdown started in earnest on 11 December.

The Russian air force flew sorties over the Chechen capital every hour on New Year's Eve, and remorseless bombing and shelling covered half the city in flames and smoke. Military authorities said they were "within firing distance" of the headquarters of Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen leader, but Chechen officials countered by claiming to have destroyed dozens of Russian tanks.

According to the Itar-Tass news agency, the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, and the Interior Minister, Viktor Yerin, flew to the region overnight to review the military operation.

The Russian assault has failed to knock out Chechnya's television station. On New Year's Eve the Chechen Information Minister, Movladi Udugov, broadcast an appeal to his countrymen: "Guard the borders, take up your arms, move to Grozny. Today, once and for all, we should solve the problem of the Russian occupation."

A few hours later, President Boris Yeltsin gave his own nationwide address. "My new year congratulations to all servicemen . . . When you carry out your duties, when you risk your lives even on New Year's Eve, remember that you are serving Russia and that you are defending Russia and the Russians," Mr Yeltsin said.

"The most important task for me next year is to restore peace and normal life in Chechnya, North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Then the refugees will be able to return to their homes."

In the past three weeks, thousands of civilians have fled Grozny, a city of 400,000 before the Russian intervention. Precise casualty figures are unavailable, but it seems the fighting and the Russian air raids have killed hundreds of people.

By yesterday afternoon, the Russian government's press centre was issuing statements to the effect that Chechen resistance had all but collapsed. "Illegal military groups are putting up active resistance only on the approaches to the presidential palace," a spokesman said.

Such claims get a sceptical response from Russia's independent press, since they come from the same government information machine that alleged that Chechen forces were bombing their own civilians. "They clearly take Russians for dimwits," the liberal newspaper Izvestia said last week.

Meanwhile, Russia's human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, who went to Grozny soon after the start of the crackdown, denounced Mr Yeltsin. "From the basement of the heavily shelled residence of Dzhokhar Dudayev, we who fought with you for democracy in Russia in 1991 to 1994 tell you that we are on different sides of the barricades today," he said.

"We are not for Dudayev. We are against the war launched against the whole Chechen people . . . and unfortunately you are the commander-in-chief in this war. Today the problem is not about Chechnya but the democratic future of Russia."