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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
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

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there