The worst fighting in months flared Tuesday in the breakaway region of Chechnya, as Russian President Boris Yeltsin emerged from his postelection seclusion to prepare for his inauguration.
Chechen rebels moved into the capital, Grozny, early Tuesday morning. According to Russian television, the heaviest fighting was around the train station and the headquarters of the Moscow-installed Chechen government.
Rebel sources said 2,000 fighters had broken through Russian posts and penetrated the city. Russian officials claimed there were no more than 600. According to reports late Tuesday night, there was still heavy shooting in the city.
Yeltsin, who has been resting at a sanitarium outside Moscow since his election last month, met in the Kremlin with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The two said that the rebel offensive must be countered with “adequate measures.”
Military officials said Tuesday that they were not targeting residential areas, although Russian television reported civilian casualties. More than 30,000 civilians have been killed since the war began. Officials said the death toll among servicemen was 23, although casualties have been significantly underreported in the past.
The fighting came as Russian officials arrived in Grozny for a new round of talks with rebel leaders. Several cease-fire agreements have been signed and quickly crumbled since last summer.
“Our state commission will be forced to say that there is no point in any further talks” if the rebel offensive continues, commission member Sergei Stepashin told Russian television.
Chechen military commander Aslan Maskhadov charged that Russia’s claim to be withdrawing troops from the region was a “deception.” Yeltsin sent 40,000 Russian troops into the rebel region in December 1994.
On the heels of his re-election July 5, Yeltsin cleared his Cabinet of its most vociferous hawks, sacking, among others, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, who had said when the war began that his troops could take Grozny in two hours.
But two bomb explosions on trolley buses in Moscow in July were used as a pretext for escalating the war, even though there is no evidence linking Chechens to the incidents. Russia’s central state television channel claimed Tuesday that radio intercepts in Grozny caught Chechen field commanders encouraging rebel fighters to pillage, and then blame it on Russian troops.
Polls here show that the war tops the list of issues troubling Russians.
Yeltsin overcame the blame for the Chechnya war during his presidential campaign by promising he would work for political and economic stability. But a renewal of the war will likely cause political problems for the president whose health has been an ongoing issue.