Russians 'cleanse' Chechen separatists

War in Caucasus: Talks falter as Kremlin fears rebellion will dominate election campaign
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The Independent Online
After a day of street battles and heavy shelling, the Russian military yesterday claimed to have "all but completed" an attempt to crush hundreds of Chechens blockaded in a village in the turbulent republic.

Russian troops were last night completing the "cleansing" of separatists from Novogroznensky, a federal official told Interfax news agency, in a bid to end a five-day battle which put the Chechen war back at the top of the national headlines.

The Russians moved in on the village, 40 miles east of Grozny, after accusing the inhabitants of failing to fulfil a pledge, made by local officials, to hand over weapons and to stop supporting the rebels. The headquarters of Alsan Maskhadov, the Chechen chief of staff, had become an informal centre for Russian-Chechen negotiations until the battle erupted.

Last night it was uncertain whether the operation was part of President Boris Yeltsin's efforts to end the 14-month Chechen conflict before the presidential election in June - as he has promised - or whether it was merely another chapter in a war in which the Kremlin has betrayed no sign of coherent strategy.

The Russian military - which tends to understate its casualties and inflate those of its enemies - admitted that 30 of its troops were killed, while also claiming to have killed nearly six times as many Chechens. The number of residents killed, if any, was unknown; although many fled, locals complained that some were caught in the bombardment .

The affair is another reminder to the Kremlin that Chechnya is threatening to become the dominating issue - greater even than Russia's economic woes - in President Yeltsin's election campaign. This is a prospect that will not be welcomed by his supporters at home or abroad, as many fear it is doomed to remain unresolved.

In the last two months alone, it has produced some of the Kremlin's most erratic decisions. The latest was the firing of Oleg Poptsov, the head of Russian Television (RTR), partly because the Kremlin objected to its "morbid" reporting of the conflict. Before that came the disastrous siege of Pervomayskoye in Dagestan, a debacle that exposed the chaos in the Russian military and demonstrated a callous disregard for the lives of civilians.

Mr Yeltsin now admits the war was a mistake, and appears determined to end it. Given his unpopularity, and the strength of his Communist rivals, he had little choice but to pledge to do so before voters go to the polls - despite the risk that this will backfire when he fails to deliver on his promise.

Yesterday the mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, said in an interview with the newspaper Izvestia that he was unsure whether Mr Yeltsin would even make it into the second round of the presidential contest in four months time, unless he sorts out the Chechen issue.

Yet a settlement seems a long way off. Mr Yeltsin is awaiting the findings of a commission, set up by the Russian Security Council, to find solutions. He is well aware that withdrawing troops altogether would be liable to start a internal bloodbath, which could spread to the rest of the Caucasus. But failing to quell the conflict could cost him his job.

His likely path lies somewhere in the middle - a partial withdrawal, carefully targeted assaults on the rebels, combined with heavy investment in the demilitarised zones and offers of power-sharing. This will not impress the Chechen rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, or his men.

t Helmut Kohl yesterday gave his strong backing to President Yeltsin and said it would be "idiotic" for the West to stop giving aid to Russia.

In a clear vote of confidence in Mr Yeltsin, the German Chancellor described him as a reliable partner. He told a Moscow news conference he welcomed the Russian leader's decision to run again in the June election.