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Press Review: Russia's All-Out Assault In Dagestan

  • Don Hill

Prague, Jan. 16 (RFE/RL) - Western press commentators are focusing today on the attack against Chechen gunmen in Pervomayskaya, Dagestan.

David Hoffman writes today in The Washington Post: "A Russian military attack yesterday on a farming village where Chechen rebels are holding more than 100 hostages failed to rout the rebels or free more than a handful of hostages. Seen from an embankment about a mile across the southern Russian plain, the village of Pervomayskaya was shrouded by clouds of white smoke that were pierced by explosive flashes.... Alexander Mikhailov, spokesman for the security service, said Russian forces were attacking with 'surgical precision' and avoiding targets where the hostages were held. But seen from an embankment in the neighboring village of Sovietskoye, the bombardment of Pervomayskaya seemed anything but precise."

In the British newspaper The Independent today, columnist Tony Barber comments: "There was a terrible predictability about the bloody drama that unfolded yesterday in the northern Caucasus.... It has reached a ferocious climax." Barber says: "It may be argued that President Boris Yeltsin had little choice but to use maximum force.... However, the fundamental explanation for the deaths in Pervomayskaya lies in Mr. Yeltsin's fatally misjudged decision to send his army and security forces into Chechnya in December 1994."

From Moscow, Glara Germani writes today in the U.S. newspaper The Baltimore Sun: "As Russians watched television coverage of government helicopter gunships mercilessly pounding a tiny southern village with rockets all day yesterday, suspicions grew about whether the assault was calculated to save hostages held by Chechen rebels, or to save beleaguered President Boris Yeltsin's reputation.... The past week has been symbolic of the protracted Chechen problem.... 'There's an election in five months, and the main problem of the race will be the Chechnyan war,' said Ruslan Aushev, the president of Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian republic."

The London Times says today in an editorial: "Moscow's decision to storm the Dagestan village of Pervomayskaya to carry out an armed rescue of hostages has led, inevitably, to bloodshed.... Everything points, tragically, to a botched and bloody outcome.... The Russians now must see through, as swiftly as possible, this military operation. There is little confidence that it will lead to innocent victims being freed. For the Russian high command, the priority now is to kill the bandits rather than rescue the hostages."

Britain's Financial Times describes the situation in Chechnya as a sign of the need for the West to take a more critical attitude toward Russia. In an editorial today, the Financial Times says: "Yesterday's commando attack aimed at ending the hostage crisis... has refocused international attention on Russia and its bitter internal conflict.... Moscow now is stuck in the quagmire of Chechnya as the result of decisions taken in the old, secretive Soviet-style way. It might have found a less violent solution had the West not been persuaded so easily that this was a purely internal affair.... The rising power of the former KGB over internal affairs has been highlighted by the hostage crisis."

"Federal troops savaged this tiny village in southern Russia with a day-long barrage of artillery and helicopter gunfire yesterday, leaving the Chechen gunmen's refuge in smoldering ruins and freeing just nine of their captives," Carol J. Williams writes in today's Los Angeles Times. She goes on, "The bleak settlement on the edge of a snow-clad collective farm was in flames and still echoing with machine-gun fire as night closed in.... Ethnic leaders across the roiling Caucasus Mountains region have warned (President Yeltsin) that any attempt to settle his score with the Chechens on Dagestani territory could set off ethnic conflicts throughout the volatile region."

From Moscow, David Hearst writes today in Britain's The Guardian: "His voice was breathless, his face pale, but as Boris Yeltsin appeared in Red Square yesterday, there was no mistaking the president's purpose. 'When we have them cornered, and we are sure there are no hostages with them, then they must be...." All millions of Russians heard was the sound of his hand hitting his fist. This was the Russian president at his most forceful, in control of an operation he described as carefully planned.... Last night, national television showed just how premature was the president's description.... Since the first hours of the hostage-taking in Kizlyar a week ago, Mr. Yeltsin had been wriggling in a trap."

The French newspaper Liberation carries the following commentary today by Jacques Amalric: "No matter what the outcome of the crisis, (Boris Yeltsin) will have to declare himself a winner. But it will be a bitter victory.... A Russian military intervention on Dagestan's territory risks providing arguments for the most extremist Chechen fighters, who are trying to inspire their Caucasian relatives to hate the Russians.... As long as Boris Yeltsin maintains his presidential aspirations..., the spiral of repression-atrocities-terrorism will continue."

Marcus Warren writes today in the British newspaper The Guardian: "The Kremlin's military adventure in Chechnya has only underlined the weakness of the Russian army and its commander-in-chief, Mr. Yeltsin. The military's incompetence and corruption have been on display for all to see in Chechnya.... Every coffin bringing a Russian soldier back to his parents... should remind Mr. Yeltsin that the Chechen war is not some Caucasian sideshow."

In the New York Times today, Alessandra Stanley writes from Moscow: "If President Boris Yeltsin hoped that a last-minute show of force... would somehow quell his critics, he miscalculated.... Yeltsin has been sounding more and more like a man preparing himself for a re-election bid. And that may help explain why... prominent political figures on his left and right began hammering at the president - even before the death toll was known.... Only the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky favored the assault, but then quickly complained that Yeltsin would lack the resolve to finish the job against the hostage-takers, led by Salman Raduyev.... But as they waited for the outcome, ordinary Russians did not appear as steadfastly opposed to the assault as most politicians."