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Chechnya: Army Attacks Last Major Separatist Stronghold

Moscow, 9 December 1999 (RFE/RL) - Interfax says Russian troops today launched an operation intended to capture the town of Shali, the last major separatist stronghold in the populated lowland area of Chechnya. Interfax quotes the Russian command as saying residents of Shali, some 20 km southeast of Grozny, have told the military the town is free of rebels. The army says Shali residents are inviting the troops to move in and check. The Interfax report could not be independently confirmed. Russian forces seized the town of Urus-Martan, another key rebel stronghold, against little Chechen resistance yesterday. Russian forces now appear to be in command of all populated areas in northern and central Chechnya except Grozny.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said yesterday the conflict in Chechnya has become the biggest issue in U.S.-Russian relations. Clinton says this is "bad" for both Russia and the U.S. But Clinton conceded the U.S. and world community have few concrete ways to force Russia to scale back its military onslaught.

Meanwhile, Russian President Boris Yeltsin met Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Beijing today and won backing for the military campaign in Chechnya. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told reporters Jiang told Yeltsin "he completely understands and fully supports Russia's actions" in Chechnya.