On the same day that elite Russian paratroopers left for the breakaway Chechen republic to prepare a second assault on Grozny, President Boris Yeltsin announced Wednesday he was ordering his air force to stop bombing the shattered capital.
It was the second time since the war began Dec. 11 that Yeltsin said he was calling off the devastating bombing runs. The last such announcement presaged a massive air and ground offensive that culminated on New Year’s Eve with the humiliating defeat of Russian troops on the streets of Grozny. Yeltsin’s order was to take effect at 12:01 a.m. today.
Units of professional soldiers are now on their way to Chechnya to replace the poorly trained conscripts who have borne the brunt of the fighting, and many here interpreted Yeltsin’s order as an ominous rather than hopeful sign.
Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov, in charge of coordinating operations against Chechnya, hinted Wednesday that a fresh assault on Grozny was imminent and predicted the rebel capital would be in Russian hands by the end of today.
Yeltsin has come under mounting criticism at home and abroad for the brutal conduct of the war, in which hundreds of civilians have been killed in indiscriminate aerial bomb attacks. Russian forces, frustrated by their inability to capture Grozny and reassert Russian control over the separatist republic, went on a rampage Tuesday, bombing outlying villages, roadside markets, motorists and a farmer plowing his field. Cluster bombs, designed to killed as many people as possible, were used in at least one attack on the market, Moscow’s Independent Television reported Wednesday night.
According to Yeltsin’s press service, the decision to halt the controversial air raids was made after talks with government leaders and took account of appeals from citizens and legislators who have been protesting the bloodshed. Yeltsin, who is said to be under the influence of a narrow circle of advisers, held a meeting Wednesday with several members of his security council.
“The decision was taken on the basis of the information the president has received … and guided by the desire to prevent an increase in the number of victims among the civilian population,” the press service said.
It gave no further details and did not mention halting other force in Chechnya, where Russia has thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks. The semiofficial ITAR-Tass news agency reported that an elite ground unit and a marine battalion were being sent from the Murmansk region in northwestern Russia, and that other units the Ural Mountains and the Russian Far East were arriving in Chechnya.
Meanwhile, Russian legislator Anatoly Shabad said he was convinced that the air force had purposely struck civilian targets in retaliation for the heavy losses in last week’s failed assault on Grozny. He urged the West to stop calling the war an internal Russian matter and pressure Yeltsin to stop the fighting.