Russians bomb own troops in Chechen war

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The Independent Online
Russian forces rounded off a week in which they have pounded Chechen villages by accidentally bombing their own troop positions, it was revealed yesterday. The disastrous incident, in which soldiers and civilians were killed, will hardly serve to produce a receptive audience when President Boris Yeltsin goes on television tomorrow to announce a new plan to end the war in Chechnya, before the June elections.

The commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, was forced to apologise for what he called the "accidental" bombing of the western village of Katyr-Yurt on Thursday. Nine civilians and an unspecified number of troops died.

The incident prompted even the pro-Kremlin puppet government in Grozny to protest. A spokesman suggested it may not have been an accident.

Katyr-Yurt was a settlement which had handed over its weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the army, yet it had been bombed, he said. "Clearly there are forces among the Russian military who are interested in continuing the war."

Mr Yeltsin is not. He knows he must extinguish the conflict, which he has called the "biggest disappointment of my presidency", if he is to stand a chance of overtaking his Communist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, currently the front runner in the presidential election race. But his plan is going to have to be a magic one to succeed, and all the signs are that it falls short.

Earlier this month, rumours swept Moscow that Mr Yeltsin was going to sack the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, who helped drag Russia into the war in 1994. His dismissal would have indicated new thinking in the Kremlin. But the general has made three trips to Chechnya in as many weeks to oversee a Russian operations which observers say have been as brutal as any in the war.

Russian tanks were reported to be surrounding Chechen villages, making them sign peace agreements under duress. But there have been no talks with the separatist leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, although a recent poll showed 57 per cent of Russians favoured this idea. Instead, the Russian army has attacked rebel positions, pushing Dudayev's men back into the southern mountains.

General Grachev said this week that after Mr Yeltsin's speech, large- scale military operations would cease.

But General Dudayev, who still regards himself as being at war with Russia, cannot be relied on to play Mr Yeltsin's election game. In the absence of a proper settlement with all parties, the risk remains of terrorist raids, like that carried out in Kizlyar in January.

One presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky on Thursday dismissed Mr Yeltsin's peace plan as a "myth" and called for demonstrations against the "genocide" in Chechnya. But on another front, Mr Yeltsin's election chances were boosted yesterday, when the republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement on economic integration with Russia without loss of sovereignty.

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