Helen Womack,Andrew Higgins
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:52

Fighters loyal to the Chechen leader, Dzhokar Dudayev, fired a volley of Grad rockets at two advancing Russian columns yesterday. The Russians retaliated by firing shells and sending an attack helicopter to seek out the rocket launcher.

The first serious clash since Russian tanks entered the separatist region on Sunday made already inauspicious peace talks which opened in neighbouring North Ossetia even less likely to succeed and increasing the risk of a long Caucasian war.

The Chechens' rocket launcher was hidden behind an oil refinery near the village of Dolinskoye, 15 miles from the capital, Grozny. The economic and strategic importance of the Chechen energy industry goes much of the way to explaining why Moscow is reluctant to allow the region independence.

Experts on the Caucasus have said that if fighting starts in Chechnya it will be very hard to stop, in part because of the local culture of blood vendetta. The incident in Dolinskoye augurs badly for the fragile peace process started in Vladikavkaz, the

capital of North Ossetia.

The Chechen delegation to the talks was yesterday given a blunt reminder of what Moscow now hopes is the simple home truth. Driving in from Grozny, the Chechen delegation's cars had to swerve to avoid an oncoming Russian convoy of 250 armoured vehicles. But there was no hint that the Chechens were ready to surrender, despite the tremendous fire power facing them in Russia's single biggest military operation since Afghanistan in 1979.

Russia has two principal demands: that Chechnya accept its position as a part of Russia and rescind its declaration of independence; and that Chechnya lay down its arms. The talks, held at the House of Arts, were dragging on late last night.

But the representatives of Moscow and Grozny were miles apart, as the Chechens wanted to talk about the lifting of a Russian economic blockade while the Russians were only interested in disarming the Chechens and bringing the region back under federal control.

The Russians, which approached Chechnya from three sides on Sunday, got a taste of the resistance they can expect when the Ingush, neighbours of the Chechens, attacked their tanks while people on the border between Chechnya and Dagestan, another republic, took 40 Russian prisoners.

Political turmoil, page 12

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