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West awaits final assault on Grozny

WITH THE European security summit in Turkey now out of the way, it is only a matter of time before Russian forces in Chechnya mount a final ground assault on the capital, Grozny, according to military analysts in Russia and elsewhere.

While world leaders were meeting in Istanbul, the only pause in Russia's war against the rebellious region was caused by bad weather. Yesterday the air force resumed its bombing raids, targeting the town of Urus Martan, where Moscow said Islamic fighters were congregating, and Interior Ministry troops continued what they call the "cleaning" of reoccupied Chechen villages.

In the Kremlin, President Boris Yeltsin met his Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, and Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, just back from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul. Russian media said the President was pleased with their work. The summit ended with an agreement that the OSCE chairman, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Knut Vollebaek, could visit Chechnya. He wants to meet elected Chechen leaders, but the Russians were saying yesterday they would only allow him on "liberated" territory, as they could not let him risk being taken hostage.

As proceedings wound up in Istanbul, both sides avoided the very worst. Although Moscow's savage war in Chechnya hung like a black cloud over proceedings, Russians, Americans and Europeans managed to attach their names to three agreements: an updated treaty limiting conventional arms in Europe, a charter of principles for European security and a closing declaration in which Chechnya, if not acted upon, was at least mentioned.

The West protested loudly but its price for signing the deals was cheap: a grudging acknowledgement from the Russians that the OSCE - the body set up to police the rules of post-Cold War Europe - might have a role in any search for a settlement, and that Mr Vollebaek might actually visit the war zone.

"Not all we would have liked, but at least it's something," said one Western diplomat who sat through Mr Yeltsin's opening tirade in which he lambasted the notion of "humanitarian interference" by outsiders in his war against "bandits, terrorists and gangsters". But even that "something" soon began to fade as, back in Moscow, Mr Sergeyev derided the OSCE as an "inexperienced" body that had failed to settle the last Chechen war five years ago and was bound to fail again.

Russia's patience with the anarchic separatist region ran out in September, after a spate of terrorist bombs in Moscow and other cities. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Moscow plans not just to wipe out the Islamic guerrillas but to reoccupy the entire region and bring it back under Russian rule.

The West understands that Moscow has a genuine problem with kidnapping and terrorism emanating from the Caucasus, but is worried that Russia's massive military response is disproportionate. As a result, Bill Clinton balanced remarks about Moscow's right to defend itself with advice about the importance of avoiding an "endless cycle of violence".

The Russian media heard only the bits they wanted to hear. "US President Bill Clinton has, in effect, supported the activities of the Russian authorities in Chechnya," said the influential first television channel, ORT.

The West now finds itself in a similar position to that of Russia during Nato's campaign against Yugoslavia, advocating a political solution but, unless it wants to exacerbate tensions, sitting on the sidelines until the military exhausts itself. But Russian officers show no signs of doing that. Although they deny they want revenge for the humiliations of the last war against Chechnya, they have been waiting since 1996 for a chance to show their mettle.

At the same time, Mr Yeltsin, seeing his chosen successor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, grow in popularity with the Russian public, is keen to extract maximum political dividends from the war. Opinion polls show that 65 per cent of Russians, terrified by the apartment block bombs that killed nearly 300 people in September, relish the punishment of Chechnya.

Mr Putin's declared aim is to create a cordon sanitaire around Chechnya to pen in the terrorists. He has assured citizens that there will be no repeat of the last war, in which Grozny was razed to the ground, hundreds of thousands of civilians died and Russia's conscripted sons came home in coffins. But the cordon is more like a noose that goes on tightening. So far, the suffering has been mostly on the Chechen side, but Russian war correspondents say that the Chechens have mined the approaches to Grozny and that somehow, probably through Chechnya's mountain border with Georgia to the south, mercenaries are coming in from Afghanistan and Pakistan to help their Muslim brethren.

Already a morgue in the city of Rostov-on-Don is filled to capacity with the refrigerated remains of Russian boys still unidentified after the last war. If and when the close contact fighting starts, there will surely be many more.