PR victory fades in fog of Chechen war

FROM ANDREW HIGGINS

in Moscow

Bombarded by accusations of bungling and atrocities, Russia's commander in Chechnya yesterday appeared at an American-run Moscow hotel to launch a public relations counter-attack.

Equipped with radio intercepts, battlefield reports and bluff confidence, Colonel-General Anatoly Kulikov declared the last lowland rebel stronghold was in Russian hands, announced the "combat stage" of the 18-week war over and described malevolent but, he insisted, fruitless Chechen machinations to gull Moscow into killing civilians.

It was, until reality intervened, an impressive performance. No sooner had Gen Kulikov completed his debut Moscow press conference than his army's freshly announced victory in Bamut evaporated and his claims of pinpoint accuracy collided with evidence of more civilian dead, this time two sisters and a 68-year-old woman killed by an air strike so far off the mark it hit a border village claimed by neighbouring Ingushetia.

After six days of fighting for Bamut, a former Soviet missile base and last major bastion of Chechnya's secessionist rebellion, Gen Kulikov told a press conference at Moscow's Slavyanskaya Hotel that rebels had been driven from their positions in former rocket silos and a two-storey underground command post built to withstand a nuclear attack. He claimed the battle had cost Russia only 14 soldiers, the Chechens a staggering 400. He put Russia's total death toll in Chechnya at more than 1,500 and that of forces loyal to Dzhokhar Dudayev at 9,000. Both sides give wildly exaggerated claims for enemy dead.

With Bamut under Russian control, announced Gen Kulikov, 80 per cent of Chechen territory and 90 per cent of the population "have been liberated from unlawful armed formations."

Claiming that the "absolute majority of the republic's population" supports the decision of President Boris Yeltsin to wage war in Chechnya, he said the "task of restoring constitutional law and order has been fulfilled in the main".

But while Gen Kulikov was in Moscow describing the conquest of Bamut, Russia's stand-in commander for the Chechen campaign, Colonel-General Mikhail Yegorov, was telling Interfax news agency that Russian forces had just pulled out of Bamut because of heavy shelling from nearby hills.

"Russian troops were forced to leave the village to avoid casualties," Gen Yegorov was quoted as saying in Mozdok, Russia's headquarters for a military operation which at its peak involved nearly 60,000 troops

The Russian retreat from Bamut is certainly only temporary. Nor does the setback alter a balance of fire-power so greatly in Russia's favour that Chechen fighters will be forced to retreat to what Gen Kulikov says are 40 pre-prepared rebel bases in the Caucasus mountains. But it does underscore Moscow's repeated failure to gauge the tenacity of its enemy, now said by Gen Kulikov to number 7,000 men. It also throws doubt on assertions by Moscow that the fighting is all but over.

The ferocity of Russia's offensive has led to widespread allegations of atrocities, particularly in the village of Samashki, where Russian troops are accused of torching houses, lobbing hand-grenades into cellars and roasting civilians.

Gen Kulikov, speaking in the same hotel where Russian human rights activists first raised the alarm over Samashki last week, poured scorn on allegations of a rampage. He said 120 Chechens had died in the assault on Samashki but that all those killed put up resistance to the Russian advance.

Left unexplained was why two Russian warplanes launched what Itar-Tass yesterday reported as a rocket attack on the village of Arshty, which lies outside Chechnya in the neighbouring region of Ingushetia. The news agency, whose journalist witnessed the air strike on Tuesday, named three dead: two sisters, Lena and Mareta Khatsiyev, and 68-year-old Kamali Tatarova.

The President of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, denounced the raid as "criminal". The Russians responded with what has become the standard response to reports of civilian casualties: it never took place.

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