Spin doctor tangled in own yarn

PHIL REEVES

near Pervomayskoye

One glance at the stocky and slightly bow-legged frame of Alexander Mikhailov as he strides around in his khaki fatigues is evidence enough that he is no Tim Bell.

But the chief spin doctor for the successor to the KGB is as deft of tongue as any of his Western counterparts. In the last 48 hours, Major General Mikhailov has been engaged in what may be his toughest assignment to date, disseminating information for the Federal Security Services, the agency leading the assault on the village of Pervomayskoye in the Russian republic of Dagestan.

If you want to know how the army is getting on as it tries to wipe out 150 Chechen rebels by blasting a village with ground-to-air missiles and huge artillery shells - despite the presence of scores of men, women and children hostages - then he is your man.

Every few hours his burly figure, capped by a black woolly hat, can be seen at the heart of a knot of journalists in Sovietskoye, the nearby village where the international press is holed up. He has been as busy as ever at his spinning wheel.

When the onslaught began the Russians expected to take the village - a scattering of only 250 mud and brick buildings on a dead flat landscape - within a day. As the Chechens battled on, the general began to choose his words carefully. The village (population1,200) was, in fact, a gorod - the Russian word for city.

He is unusually comradely, given his somewhat sinister role, but he also has an icy edge. Asked yesterday what Russia now planned, he rolled his gum in his jaw and shot back: "We will annihilate the bandits." Awkward questions are met with a hostile blue-eyed stare. Of these there is no shortage. He has yet to explain the mystery surrounding his claim on Monday as the battle began that the Chechens had strung up two Ministry of the Interior (Omon) police in the village centre.

Yesterday he back-tracked. All the 37 Omon hostages were safe and well, he said. The two men whose bodies were hung up may already have been dead - a claim which suggests that the Russians now concede that they may not have been expressly killed as an act of provocation, but died in an earlier skirmish. This removed one of the main explanations for the brutal Russian assault.

Yesterday General Mikhailov, 45, had a new story to tell. The Chechens had been firing at buildings containing their hostages and even set some structures alight.

We may never know if he is telling the truth. He would be a lot easier to believe if he had not a questionable track record in the first few hours of the battle. Drawing a leaf from the book of his KGB predecessors, he flatly denied that a Russian tank was destroyed by the Chechens. He also rebuffed suggestions that the village school had been shelled. Yet we, the journalists witnessing this charade, saw both events with our own eyes.

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