Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Palestine yes, Chechnya no

By Abdel-Malek Khalil

Russian President Boris Yeltsin is recovering from yet another bout of pneumonia. But the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insisted this week that Yeltsin remained on top of government affairs despite the latest health setback. Yeltsin, 68, fell ill last Thursday, but he was well enough to speak on Tuesday on the phone for 20 minutes with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Yeltsin assured Arafat that he will be visiting Bethlehem to celebrate the 2000 Orthodox Christmas celebrations on 6 January. Yeltsin also reiterated his support for the Palestinian people's right to self-determination and the creation of their own state.

Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya has intensified and Yeltsin fully backs the heavy-handed clamp down on the Chechen people's fight for national self-determination. Chechnya is in turmoil as the Russian army closes in on the capital Grozny. The breakaway predominantly Muslim republic is resisting to the Russian onslaught to the last. The last major supply routes between Grozny and the rest of rebel controlled Chechnya has been severed and the Russian army is reported to be doing battle with about 500 Chechen Islamist militants.

The Russian advance continues to be slow because the military command pulls the troops back every time they encounter heavy resistance. They are seeking to avoid the kind of heavy losses suffered in ground battles during the previous, 1994-1996 Chechnya war.

The Russian military has denied its plans to storm Grozny, and instead says that it is seeking to cut the city off from supplies and reinforcements while hammering it with air and artillery strikes to wipe out or drive out the remaining militants in the city. Temperatures have plunged in recent weeks and the city's displaced population suffers Arctic conditions. The refugee situation in neighbouring republics has worsened. But, in Chechnya itself conditions are reportedly catastrophic.

Russia's heavy bombing of Grozny prompted a counter-offensive by rebels on Saturday -- the first major raid since the Russian military ground operation began in September. Fighters led by field commander Salman Raduyev stormed the town of Novogroznensky, 40 km east of Grozny, and claimed to have largely taken control of the town on Saturday. Meanwhile the strikes on Grozny since Thursday have left more than 260 people dead, according to mayor Lecha Dudayev.

The international community is putting increasing pressure on Russia to halt the offensive, focusing its complaints on widespread civilian casualties and on the plight of the more than 220,000 refugees who have fled the fighting.

The Russian military denied that civilians had been killed, saying the strikes targeted facilities used by Islamic militants. Still the Russian military conceded that hardly any residences remained intact in Grozny after its latest assault on the city. Even if buildings have not collapsed, their roofs have been torn off, and windows and doors shattered.

One of the main rebel field commanders, Shamil Basayev, warned that the war was about to shift into a terrain that makes the Russians much more vulnerable. He told Grozny television that the Chechen command was preparing a counteroffensive against Russian forces, adding that time "has already come" for ground battles.

Meanwhile, Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov claimed that Chechen fighters had deliberately chosen not to launch a major counterattack against the Russians in order to leave open the possibility of peace talks.

"Sooner or later, Moscow will have to start talks," the embattled Maskhadov said on Chechen television Sunday evening. But Russia has said that it wants to destroy the militants before beginning any negotiations, and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said that at present there is no one in Chechnya to negotiate with.

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