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Russia acts to avoid isolation over Chechnya

WHILE RUSSIAN forces squeezed Grozny ever tighter and gas-bombed Chechen rebels in the mountains, Moscow moved on the diplomatic front yesterday to head off tension with the West, which might complicate the climax of its "anti-terrorist" operation. The Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, said President Boris Yeltsin had told him to make it his priority to avert Russia's international isolation over Chechnya.

In his first foreign policy remarks since this month's parliamentary elections, when Russian politicians adopted nationalist postures, Mr Ivanov said Moscow's contacts with the West were being maintained "at rather a high level". Recent disagreements did not mean Russia's relations with the West were heading for the deep freeze. At the same time, he warned: "The language of sanctions is not the language to use when speaking to Russia."

The West has yet to react to the Russian ground operation in Grozny that began on Christmas Day. Earlier it warned that Moscow might forfeit economic aid if it did not take better care to protect civilians. Alone in commenting, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the Nato secretary general, spoke of Chechnya more in sorrow than in anger, acknowledging Russia had real problems with terrorism but saying military methods were not the solution. "I feel disappointed that the Russians have taken this course of action to deal with a very serious, severe problem that they clearly had in Chechnya, a collapse of law, a collapse of the machinery of government there and a spillover of terrorism inside Russia itself," he said. Moscow would have been reassured by his further comment that Chechnya was an internal affair for Russia.

On the ground yesterday, federal forces said they had taken control of the north-eastern quarter of Grozny and were pressing on into the city centre. Beslan Gantimirev, a pardoned convict heading a vanguard of pro-Moscow Chechens, was reported to be close to the city centre and was quoted as saying he was meeting "desperate resistance" from the separatists. Fighting continued in the Staropromyslovsky suburb where, the Russians said, 50 Chechens had been killed compared with three on the federal side.

Everything was "going to plan", according to the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. "The action in Chechnya will be carried through to its conclusion. We will do what we have said we will do," he said.

The Russians are hoping to control Grozny by Saturday. Given the fierce resistance, that is optimistic, but it can only be a matter of time before they take the city, as they outnumber and outgun the Chechens. Holding it will be another matter, as they will be vulnerable to guerrilla raids from the Caucasus mountains. That was why yesterday the Russians also turned their war machine on the mountain strongholds of Islamic fighters, such as Shamil Basayev. "Grozny will soon be mopped up but it is not the matter of primary concern to us now," said Sergei Zhuk. a defence ministry spokes-man, "The most important thing for the federal forces is the southern direction, as the majority of the rebels went there."

Interfax news agency said that in the south the air force was dropping 500kg "aerosol bombs" that released clouds of inflammable gas before explo- ding. Such bombs were not being used over Grozny or other populated areas but only over the mountains, where they could reach the guerrillas in their bunkers and caves, it said.

Parallel to the fighting and little noticed by the media, Russia's Emergencies Minister, Sergei Shoigu, was holding talks in Ingushetia with Khozhahmed Yarikhanov, a representative of the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, about ways of releasing the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped in Grozny. Also without much fanfare, the Russians published figures showing that 397 federal troops had been killed and 917 injured in Chechnya since October.