Yeltsin claims victory but war is far from over

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With Russia's flag finally installed atop the rubble of Chechnya's rebel headquarters, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday declared the military stage of his campaign to subdue the renegade region effectively over - but he said almost exactly the sa me thing three weeks ago.

While a final barrage of artillery and rocket fire drove out Chechen fighters and secured for Russia the symbolic centre of Chechnya's secessionist rebellion, Russia's nearly six week war in the Caucasus seems far from finished. And the political fall-out in Moscow has barely even begun.

Chechen rebels may have abandoned the bombed out husk of what used to be the presidential palace of Dzhokhar Dudayev and before that the headquarters of the regional Communist Party. But a Russian government statement all but acknowledged that the real target has yet to be conquered. It is not so much the presidential palace as the man who occupied it: Mr Dudayev. His whereabouts are unknown but the official communique left little doubt about Moscow's intentions: "There is information that Chechens think that Dudayev must be killed after military action is over because he is one of those to blame for deaths of thousands of Chechens."

The hoisting of the Russian tricolour amid the ruins had none of the finality or clarity of purpose that attended an earlier flag raising yesterday's feat was clearly meant to echo - the hoisting of the Soviet emblem atop the Reichstag in May 1945.

The name of Sergei Nikolayevich Bunin, the commander of the unit that raised the flag yesterday, seems unlikely to acquire the heroic resonance of Yegorov and Katariya, the two soldiers who sealed Russia's victory in Berlin and whose surnames are still remembered 45 years later. Nor is Mr Dudayev likely to take Hitler's way out.

A statement by Mr Yeltsin claiming victory and opening what he called a new stage of "civil construction" was almost identical to an earlier proclamation of imminent military triumph on 26 December. "The military stage of re-establishing the constitutionof Russia and the Chechen republic is effectively over," he said yesterday. "The first stage is coming to an end," he had told the Kremlin Security Council three weeks earlier.

Instead of celebration, yesterday's conquest of the presidential palace and other reported gains around the railway station - which a day earlier the Chechens claimed to have recaptured - has brought mostly confusion and ominous signs of more fighting tocome.

An official government statement acknowledged the presence of "bandit formations" in a swathe of villages outside Grozny: Chervlyonnaya, Assinovskaya, Ischerskaya, Nikolayevskaya and Novy Sharoi. Chechen rebels will eventually run out of ammunition and Mr Dudayev has none of the outside support that allowed Afghan mujahedin to mount a sustained guerrilla war.

But even the "liquidation" of Chechen fighters and the disposal of Mr Dudayev will not calm a hunt for scapegoats already underway inside Russia's own government and military. The acting prosecutor general, Alexei Ilyushenko, has announced that his office is investigating at least one general and several other officers for apparently disobeying orders in the run-up to the assault on Grozny.

Yesterday, the purge gathered pace with a report from Itar-Tass that Mr Yeltsin had signed a decree formalising the long rumoured dismissal of three generals from the rank of Deputy Defence Minister. One of them in particular, Boris Gromov, has been fiercely critical of the Chechen venture. The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who had staked out a markedly less belligerent position than Mr Yeltsin or other officials in charge of the Chechen campaign such as the Deputy Prime Minister, Nikolai Yegorov, yesterday ruled out any talks with Mr Dudayev: "We do not talk with bandits".

Only two days earlier he had offered talks with "all the interested parties and forces".