Russia plans to lay siege to the Chechen capital

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THE RUSSIAN army said yesterday that it plans to encircle the Chechen capital by early next month but will not try to storm Grozny.

General Anatoly Kvashnin, the Russian chief of staff, said there would be no ground attack on Grozny, but local people "will sort it out with the bandits and we will help them do so". Ever since invading Chechnya eight weeks ago, Russian forces have advanced behind a heavy air and artillery bombardment to keep their own losses low.

The military says that Grozny, the scene of savage fighting in the last Chechen war, is already 80 per cent surrounded.

General Kvashnin said that his troops had reached Gudermes, the second city of Chechnya, in early November, but had successfully relied on local people to persuade Chechen guerrillas to depart.

The snail's-pace Russian advance through the heavily populated central plain of Chechnya below the Caucasus mountains is now following a well- established pattern. First comes an indiscriminate bombardment of Chechen towns and villages, followed by negotiations with local leaders about the entry of Russian forces and their treatment of civilians who have not fled. The Russian immigration service yesterday put the number of Chechen refugees at 222,000, or about one-quarter of the population.

Local Chechen leaders are eager to stop the Russian bombardment of their districts and also to limit the number of people arrested in subsequent mopping-up operations. In the last Chechen war in 1994-96 many Chechens died or disappeared in "filtration" camps established to weed out guerrillas and their sympathisers.

The Interfax news agency reports that last week General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of Russian forces in western Chechnya, negotiated with local leaders in Achkhoy-Martan, west of Grozny, to make sure "that no militants remained in the town and the so-called 'mopping-up' operation was avoided".

This approach has succeeded in reducing Russian casualties in the war, which has seen only limited close-quarters fighting. But it leaves the Russian commanders with the possibility that the guerrillas may return. General Stanislav Karun, the deputy commander of Russian Interior Ministry troops, said yesterday that his men had already cleared 60 Chechen communities of guerrillas.

General Karun added that "repeat clear-ups are necessary to absolutely guarantee that sudden militant attacks or acts of sabotage do not occur". He said his men were ready to clean up the villages of Argun and Bamut, which were already surrounded.

Not all Chechen towns and villages are likely to be surrendered easily. Urus-Martan, west of Grozny, is defended by 3,000 men under Ruslan Gilaev, a seasoned guerrilla commander. Villages already taken have to be heavily garrisoned.

The Russians will also have problems trying to establish control over the rugged mountains and deep valleys of southern Chechnya, which are natural guerrilla strongholds.

Meanwhile Georgia, to the south of Chechnya, has protested that on 17 November three Russian helicopters attacked two Georgian villages, Shatili and Georgitsminda, 10 miles from the border. Interfax says that Russian and Georgian experts have found evidence that the claim is correct.