Russia again claims victory

The Russian military claimed yesterday that it had as good as taken Grozny after marines captured the Chechen stronghold of Minutka Square in a daring night raid. But a triumphant statement from the army's headquarters in Mozdok, North Ossetia, did admit that "separate groups of militants are still active in the city" and it seemed that Russia might again be prematurely announcing victory over the defiant Chechens.

Two weeks ago, after Russian troops took the presidential palace in Grozny, President Boris Yeltsin confidently declared that the "military phase" of the operation to bring the separatist Caucasian region back under Russian control was complete and the police would take over from the army.

The Muslim Chechens, whose leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, is still at large, had other ideas, however, and continued resisting the Russians in bitter street fighting.

Last Friday Moscow's forces, which have often seemed to play the role of Goliath to the Chechens' David, said they were "going in for the kill" against the defenders of Grozny.

A lucky Chechen hit which brought down a Russian warplane on Saturday must only have strengthened the resolve of the Russian marines who, according to the army statement, crossed the Sunzha River and seized the square in the south-east of the city.

"The decisive assault put an end to organised resistance to the federal troops," the statement said.

The Russian success does indeed weaken the Chechens but whether it means they have lost their capital city remains to be seen.

Even if they are pushed out of Grozny completely, they say the war will go on, as they will continue to fight from the countryside. The town of Gudermes, 25 miles to the east of the capital, looks set to become the next battlefield.

Moscow could also soon find itself having to deal with the Chechens' fellow Muslim neighbours, the Ingush. Russian troops have been pursuing Chechen fighters into Ingushetia, prompting the Ingush deputy interior minister, Ruslan Pliyev, to warn yesterdaythat his region could be drawn into the conflict.

That would be bad news for President Yeltsin, whose liberal advisers warned him against using force in Chechnya lest it resulted in a regional war right across the Caucasus.

But if the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda is to be believed, Mr Yeltsin is listening to advisers of a very different kind. Yesterday it said his aide, Lev Sukhanov, was arranging for the Kremlin leader to have regular sessions with astrologists. Mr Sukhanov was "serious about the importance of the other world and does not tolerate jokes on this matter," the paper said.

President Yeltsin's thinking on Chechnya should become clear later this month when he is due to give a state-of-the-nation address to both houses of the Russian parliament.

The West is anxious to see a quick end to the conflict, which is not only causing heavy casualties but also jeopardising Russia's economic reforms. But a Finance Ministry official yesterday denied that Moscow's latest debt talks with the International Monetary Fund were on the brink of failure because of Russia's war spending.

The Finance Minister, Vladimir Panskov, had been quoted as saying he expected the IMF to refuse a stand-by loan of $6.2bn.(£4.02bn). But the official said Mr Panskov could not possibly have said this, as he was in hospital and the rumour was spread in an attempt to move markets.

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