Moscow softens line on shelling of Grozny

MOSCOW RETREATED further yesterday from its "flee or die" ultimatum to civilians in the Chechen capital, Grozny, despite sabre-rattling from Boris Yeltsin who pointedly reminded the United States President that Russia remained a nuclear power.

The signs that Russia was pulling back from the brink came after the West warned of economic and diplomatic sanctions against Moscow for its threat to storm Grozny at the weekend. The Chechnya conflict is expected to dominate today's European Union summit in Helsinki.

The commander of Russian Interior Ministry troops, General Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, told journalists that the Russians may now limit their intervention against Grozny to a blockade. He said: "The guerrillas will not be able to hold out long without light, heat or food ... There is nothing to capture in a blockaded city."

Russia has gradually softened its ultimatum to the 100,000 people in Grozny, including the elderly and infirm, that they had until Saturday to leave the city or face extermination.

General Ovchinnikov estimated that the guerrillas have 4,000 men in Grozny and 5,500 to 6,000 in the mountains.

Speaking in Peking, President Yeltsin furiously rejected Bill Clinton's warning this week that Russia would pay a high price for the Chechen war.

"It seems Mr Clinton has forgotten Russia is a great power that possesses a nuclear arsenal," Mr Yeltsin grumbled.

Mr Clinton responded: "I haven't forgotten that. You know, I didn't think he'd forgotten America was a great power when he disagreed with what I did in Kosovo."

The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, hastened to head off any tension with the West over President Yeltsin's outburst. "We have very good relations with the United States," he insisted in Moscow.

He said he understood that Mr Clinton's comments were dictated by concern, but he thought Washington lacked knowledge about the situation in the Caucasus.

It would be "wrong to speak of a cooling of relations" between Russia and the US, he said, while adding that nuclear weapons had always been, were and would always be part of Russia's defence arsenal.

Mr Yeltsin yesterday secured Chinese support for the Chechnya campaign.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said China "understands and supports the efforts made by Russia in safeguarding national unity and territorial integrity".

China is concerned about any international interference in domestic matters, which Peking fears could also be applied to Taiwan and Tibet.

Commentators said it remained to be seen whether Russia was seriously reorienting itself towards the East or whether Moscow was merely sabre- rattling. Mr Yeltsin's theatrical performance could have been largely for domestic consumption in Russia.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A long-established, technology rich ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This growing digital marketing ...

Recruitment Genius: Electrical Quality Supervisor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Midland's leading Solar Panels provi...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable