Yeltsin talks tough on `illegal' Chechens

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President Boris Yeltsin yesterday locked Russia on course for further bloodshed in the renegade region of Chechnya, with a pugnacious declaration to the nation that it must "spare no effort" to remove what he called a gangster regime.

While insisting the path to a peaceful settlement was still open, Mr Yeltsin said Chechnya, conquered by Tsarist forces in the 19th century after nearly half a century of war, had no right to independence: "Hence, an unequivocal conclusion: the regime inGrozny is illegitimate."

Mr Yeltsin's uncompromising television address, his first in over two weeks, was an attempt to reassert his authority. The military escapade in Chechnya is prompting comparisons with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 15 years ago. Senior general such asBoris Gromov, who led the retreat from Afghanistan, have warned against repeating a campaign which turned into a fiasco.

Mr Yeltsin, who has already been deserted by his former allies among Moscow's liberal reformers, now finds his most vociferous supporters are the ultra-nationalists such as Vlad-imir Zhironovsky, the nationalist leader.

As fighting continued yesterday around the Chechen capital, casualties were said to include the 23-year-old son of Dzhokhar Dudayev, Chechnya's President and the driving force behind the secessionist rebellion. Avlur Dudayev, according to Interfax news agency, was wounded on Monday.

His father, a former Soviet general, shows no readiness to disarm or drop calls for a holy Islamic war across the Caucasus. Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as taunting Moscow, saying Russia's military venture in Chechnya had "failed from the very start".

Russia has sent elite units to reinforce demoralised and tired forces fighting in Chechnya. They will prepare what the Kremlin terms the "second stage" of its campaign , to install a new government headed by a Moscow-appointed Chechen. Commandos from OMON special forces were yesterday reported on their way to Grozny from the Russian city of Tver to " bear the main burden" of this second phase.

The only hint that widespread criticism of the operation has dented Mr Yeltsin's resolve was a pledge by him to rule out any bombing liable to cause civilian casualties. But Russia has said basically this all along, blaming bomb damage on the Chechens themselves.