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Beleaguered Yeltsin Vows To Crack Down On Chechen Separatists

Prague, Jan. 23 (RFE/RL) - Facing a barrage of criticism over his handling of the hostage crisis last week in Dagestan, Russian President Boris Yeltsin today vowed to crush Chechen separatists.

In a televised speech at the opening session of the new Federation Council, Yeltsin said he would enter into "a patient dialogue with all those ready to hold political talks." But he also warned that Russian troops would crush "terrorist bases" and eliminate "armed groups and their leaders" in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Last night, Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said in a televised interview that "the operation in Chechnya will now be toughened." Echoing Yeltsin's remarks, Kulikov said new federal forces will be dispatched to the region and that "they would crush" the Chechen separatists.

But these pledges to toughen Russia's stance against Chechen separatists are unlikely to quell the rising criticism faced by Yeltsin from politicians across the political spectrum for his handling of the hostage-taking crisis in Dagestan.

Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is likely to face Yeltsin in this June's presidential election, said that the fiasco in Pervomayskaya was "the fault of the president, his government and their ham-fisted policies."

Another presidential hopeful, the outspoken retired Russian General Alexander Lebed called the military operation a "national disgrace."

Yegor Gaidar, the reform-minded economist and a former acting prime minister, resigned yesterday from his senior advisory post. Gaidar said that he could not "imagine a situation where I could return to the position of supporting the president."

The Dagestan drama began ten days ago when Salman Raduyev led some 300 supporters in a siege on Kizlyar village. The separatists captured more than a thousand hostages and demanded that Russian forces withdraw from Chechnya.

The separatists eventually boarded buses and set out for Chechnya more than one hundred hostages. Russian forces blocked their path in the Dagestan village of Pervomayskaya, just a few kilometers from the Chechen border. There, the standoff culminated in a three-day all-out assault by Russian forces.

Last Wednesday, Yeltsin announced the operation had ended and he claimed that 82 hostages had been freed, with 18 still missing but "presumed alive." He also said that 153 separatists had been killed and 30 captured.

But a sizable number of Chechen separatists managed to escape even though the village was said to have been ringed by thousands of Russian soldiers backed by tanks, artillery and warplanes. Raduyev himself was able to slip away with scores of hostages. This left Yeltsin with a rather hollow victory and further humiliation.

Yesterday, Raduyev gave an interview from an undisclosed location near his home of Novogroznensky. He said that the Russians "call us bandits but we are not bandits. We are Allah's warriors fighting for our independence." Raduyev also said his supporters were holding 82 hostages and that all of them, except 20 Russian interior force soldiers, would be released today. Raduyev said the 20 Russian interior troops would be detained as prisoners of war to be exchanged for his wounded comrades.

The fact that Raduyev managed to escape with a significant number of hostages has left many Russians disillusioned with the Kremlin pronouncements.

Last week, opinion polls showed Yeltsin had majority support for using force on the separatists. But opinion seems to have now soured against him.

In an especially scathing piece in today's Russian daily "Komsomolskaya Pravda" Valery Simonov said that "it takes real effort and incompetence to squander in the open field around Pervomayskaya, under the Kremlin's fir trees, and at the tables of press conferences, the incontestable moral superiority over the bandits which we had only last Monday!"
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.