Yeltsin rages at his hapless generals

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The Independent Online
Kto vinovat? asks the classic Russian question. Who is guilty?

The seizure yesterday of more than 1,000 civilian hostages by Chechen rebels in southern Russia left President Boris Yeltsin incandescent with fury at the incompetence of his military and security service commanders.

"How can we understand you, generals? Are you playing games? Several thousand servicemen were in the rebels' path but they still passed through," he raged at a meeting of ministers called to deal with the emergency.

The rebel raid on the town of Kizlyar was all the more humiliating because it was only last week that the Kremlin appointed a new commander, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, to conduct operations against the Chechen insurgents. In remarks likely to return to haunt him, the general predicted an end to the Chechen war by this summer because "these are just a band of armed bandits who are oppressing and degrading their people".

The problem for Mr Yeltsin is that, 13 months after his armed forces launched their crackdown in Chechnya, rebel units still seem capable of selecting targets at will and carrying out devastating attacks. The Kizlyar raid was almost a carbon copy of an assault in June on Budennovsk, where more than 100 people were killed in a hostage drama that lasted almost a week.

A month ago a prominent rebel commander, Aslan Maskhadov, masterminded an attack on Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city. The guerrillas stayed there a week and the fighting was so violent that, according to Interfax news agency, more than 500 apartment blocks were ruined.

Scarcely a day passes now without a report of Russian military casualties in this turbulent corner of the land. For example, last Thursday one soldier was killed and six wounded when guerrillas blew up an armoured troop carrier near the Chechen capital of Grozny.

In all, about 2,000 Russian servicemen have been killed in Chechnya since December 1994 - a rate that matches that suffered by Soviet forces after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Civilian casualties have been even higher. Vladimir Rubanov, deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, which has co-ordinated the campaign in Chechnya, estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 have been killed in the conflict.

Despite the ferocity of its effort, the Russian army has failed to break the spirit of Chechen resistance or to force the rebels to seek a compromise peace. None of the main secessionist leaders, from Dzhokhar Dudayev, the republic's President, to Shamil Basayev, who led the assault on Budyonnovsk, has been captured or killed.

The Russians' task is made especially hard by the fact that the Chechens do not operate under a single command but are made up of seemingly self- sufficient groups. The band that attacked Kizlyar is called Lone Wolf, and its audacity clearly stunned Mr Yeltsin.

In October he said the Chechen crisis was the biggest disappointment of his presidency, and it would appear he underestimated the difficulty of subduing a nation accustomed to resisting Moscow's authority. It is a crisis that cries out for a negotiated settlement, yet the Kizlyar raid has almost certainly damaged what prospects existed for an early peace.

With Russia five months from a critically important presidential election, it will be virtually impossible for either Mr Yeltsin or any other candidate to advocate compromise with the Chechens.

Briefly last summer it appeared the Kremlin was considering a deal with the Chechens. The Budennovsk raid prompted the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to take control of the crisis and he agreed a truce with the rebels.

However, Moscow's preferred option still seems to be force, a point underlined by Mr Yeltsin last year when, in the company of President Bill Clinton at Halifax, Nova Scotia, he denounced Chechnya as "a world centre of terrorism, corruption, bribery and the mafia".

For their part, the Chechens have not budged from their demand that all Russian troops should leave the republic, and their hopes of independence remain very much alive.

Tony Barber