On a black night in Chechnya, the Russian army is dealt a fatal blow

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THE ACCOUNTS differ wildly, but the truth is clear. Chechen commanders say they killed up to 350 Russian troops in the battle of Grozny's Minutka Square. Moscow however denies there was any battle at all. If so, then the two most trusted and authoritative news agencies of the English-speaking world are lying through their teeth.

Maria Eismont of Reuters and Ruslan Musayev of the Associated Press saw with their own eyes respectively the bodies of "more than 100" and "at least 115" Russian soldiers strewn across the vast square, two miles from the centre of the Chechen capital. It was, incontrovertibly, the worst Russian defeat, at the worst possible moment, since the second Chechen war of the 1990s began almost three months ago.

Over the past six weeks, Russian forces have been bombing, shelling and capturing towns and villages around Grozny, effectively sealing it off. On December 7, they took the important centre of Urus-Artan, and in the past few days claimed to have "cleared" areas on Grozny's outskirts, including the Khankala airbase on the city's eastern edge.

It was from Khankala that the column set out on Wednesday. Whether the Russian armoured force was the spearhead of an intended final assault on Grozny, or merely a reconnaissance sortie to probe the guerrillas' defences, is unclear. Quite possibly it lost its way in the pitch black Chechen night, straying much deeper into the capital than it intended. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Russian commanders deliberately choosing to repeat the disastrous tactics of 1994-96 when a largely conscript armoured force tried to take the city, only to be repulsed and humiliated by the insurgents.

As soon as the tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers found themselves in Minutka Square they were fatally exposed. The three hour battle, lasting from 8 to 11 pm local time, will go down as yet another example of the vulnerability of armour in built-up areas to attacks by seasoned guerrillas, equipped with rocket-launched grenades and other anti-tank weapons.

When it was over, the Reuters and AP correspondents both saw over 100 Russian soldiers lying dead, amid the wrecks of eight tanks and seven APCs. According to eyewitnesses, many of the soldiers were cut down by machine gun fire as they tried to flee their burning vehicles.

Officially however, the Russians deny their biggest defeat of the campaign ever happened. The Western agency reporters concerned are accused of being in the pay of foreign intelligence services, while even AVN, the independent Russian military news agency which reported that 50 soldiers had been killed, then quoted officials as saying that no battle had taken place at all.

There are good reasons for the stonewalling. Possibly, the plan had been for the capture of Grozny to coincide with this weekend's elections, and bolster the showing of the Yedinstvo or `Unity' bloc, the vehicle for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's expected bid for the Presidency next summer. Mr Putin's popularity has soared thanks to his robust conduct over Chechnya; the last thing he wants is a repeat of the casualties and the bodybag pictures which turned the public against the last war.

The backdrop to this war is twofold: the attempts of Chechen extremists and Muslim mercenaries in the summer to invade neighbouring Dagestan and establish an Islamic republic on Russia's southern border, and a string of terror bombings in Russian cities in early September, taking some 300 lives. Its patience exhausted, on September 23 Moscow launched its first major air attacks against targets in and around Grozny since the first war ended in 1996.

The Kremlin's goal seemed to be the establishment of a cordon sanitaire to protect its southern frontier in the turbulent Caucasus, and de facto partition of the rebel province.

The talk was of a Russian occupation of the third of Chechnya which lies north of the Terek river, leaving the capital and the harsh mountainous south to the "bandits" and "terrorists." But just as in Soviet times, the populace is likely to give more credence to Western news accounts than to the blanket denials of its own generals. And whatever they maintain in public, those generals now know that this second Chechen war will be just as tough as the first one.