Making clear its intention to continue an offensive in Chechnya despite domestic or foreign criticism, Russia’s National Security Council met here Friday as the army unleashed its most powerful artillery barrage yet on the capital of the secessionist southern region.
As Russian forces pummeled the rebel capital, Grozny, with shells from artillery positioned in several nearby villages, President Boris Yeltsin vowed yet again to rein in the furious attack.
But Yeltsin appeared to veer between peace initiatives and heightened bellicosity. He told his human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, that “it was too early” to stop the war. Yet he told Defense Minister Pavel Grachev that he was surprised to learn that the bombing of the rebel capital had continued.
Adding to the sense of disorientation, the bulletins announcing Yeltsin’s order to ease the bombardment ran across Russian television screens as they appeared to show half the city bursting into flames.
Later, the president dismissed the head of Russian state television, Vladimir Poptsov, because he did not like the station’s coverage of the war.
Speaking to his powerful inner circle, the security council, Yeltsin said he wanted to set a date for wrapping up military actions in Chechnya and move regular army forces out of the region so that internal security police could take over.
“In these conditions,” the Security Council said in a statement released here Friday night, “without abandoning efforts to seek a political settlement, it is vital as soon as possible to overcome armed resistance and wipe out illegal armed groups in order to restore constitutional legality.”
Yeltsin, acting as if he were unaware of the events unfolding in Chechnya, demanded to know why the bombing of Grozny was not stopped when he first ordered that it end last week.
He has now ordered two bombing halts, and while bombing from planes appeared to be minimal Friday, the artillery assault on the city has never been heavier.
Looking directly at Grachev, he said, “I want to hear absolutely precise information from the defense minister.”
That may be a sign that Yeltsin is preparing to sacrifice Grachev to the mounting furor over the military debacle in Grozny, where official Russian statistics say nearly 300 Russian servicemen have died - a number that most observers say is far too low.
The continued bombing raises serious questions about whether Yeltsin’s military leaders are obeying his orders, or whether he is saying one thing publicly and ordering another in private. But it is not clear in what direction Yeltsin is moving, because almost every day he issues such flagrantly contradictory signs as promising an end to combat even as it escalates.
The remarkable attacks in the Russian press continued without relief Friday.
The Moscow News put out its first special issue Friday since October 1993, when Yeltsin turned his tanks on the parliament building. The issue was filled with quotes from public officials denouncing the war.
There was also a stark banner at the bottom of the front page, highlighted in black: “In a sign of protest against the war in Chechnya, hang this special issue of Moscow News on the door of your apartment entrance, in the corridor of your office building, or at your bus stop.”
By noon Friday, hundreds of people across Moscow had already complied.
Friday’s issue of Izvestia, Russia’s most respected newspaper, was equally graphic. “In such a war even the victors should be on trial,” was the front-page headline.