War is just beginning, Chechen leaders say

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While Russian troops carried on the fight for control of Grozny yesterday, their political masters in Moscow announced plans for bringing the separatist Caucasian region back into the federal fold.

But the Chechens, whose leader Dzhokhar Dudayev survived the seizure of his headquarters on Thursday, made clear that, although the battle for the presidential palace may be lost, the war was just beginning.

Outside Grozny, Russian forces moved to block the escape of Chechens to the mountains and sympathetic neighbouring Caucasian regions such as Ingushetia and Dagestan, from where they could launch guerrilla attacks on Moscow's heavily equipped but clumsy army.

But reports from the countryside suggested the Russians might already be too late. The plains of northern Chechnya and most of Grozny may be in Russian hands but the Chechens command the steep terrain running south to the border with Georgia.

Carlotta Gall, reporting this week from the village of Itum-Kale, said the mountains were filling up with determined fighters who knew every inch of the forests and rocky slopes. "People are training up here. We are teaching the young ones," she quoted one fighter, a veteran of the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan, as saying.

The whereabouts of General Dudayev is not known but on Thursday night he gave a news conference on condition the journalists did not reveal the location. "The situation," he said, "is that the Chechen people is getting used to bombing . . . and is preparing to send the grief back where it came from."

If General Dudayev is as good as his word and Russian forces begin to face the kind of hit-and-run resistance that the Afghan mujahedin put up against Soviet troops for 10 years, then this will make a nonsense of President Boris Yeltsin's claim this weekthat the "military phase" of the Chechen crisis is over.

Yesterday Mr Yeltsin telephoned Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has led Western expressions of concern over Chechnya, to assure him that Moscow would now concentrate on bringing life back to normal in the region.

Itar-Tass news agency published a plan by the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Oleg Soskovets, for rebuilding the Chechen economy which began confidently: "The new Chechen government, based on democratic principles, will have the right to manage the region's natural resources independently and will be exempted for some time from compulsory payments to the federal budget."

As if to reassure Western countries worried that the war could slow or reverse Russian reform, another deputy prime minister, Anatoly Chubais, said yesterday that Vladimir Polevanov, the new privatisation chief who has seemed to backpeddle over dismantling state ownership, was to be sacked.

But the rouble continued a slide connected with the Chechen crisis - reaching a new low of 3,947 to the US dollar.

Another Russian ethnic region, Chuvashia on the River Volga, started its own small rebellion, vowing not to let any more young men be conscripted for Chechnya.