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Chechen Offensive Underscores Yeltsin's 'Heaviest Burden'

Prague, March 7 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his chief advisers gathered in Moscow today to discuss once again what to do in Chechnya. But as Yeltsin's Security Council discussed policy options, Russian troops remained pinned down in the Chechen capital, trying to repel the fiercest rebel offensive Grozny has seen in a year.

In the latest humiliation to Yeltsin and the administration of Doku Zavgayev he installed in Chechnya, hundreds of separatist fighters launched a full-scale attack on Grozny yesterday -- machine-gunning their way into the city from the north, west and south. The dawn offensive by fighters loyal to separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev appeared to have caught Russian forces by surprise. The vastly outnumbered separatists, numbering up to 1,000, managed to seize several southern suburbs and advance toward the city center, where battles are raging today. Dudayev, who tops Moscow's most-wanted list, even managed to interrupt broadcasts of Russian public television. He taunted the authorities on air, announcing that "Grozny will be taken" and that there would be "no mercy for Chechen traitors."

At the close of today's Security Council meeting in Moscow, Yeltsin told reporters that Russian forces had succeeded in driving out Chechen fighters. He said Grozny had been "cleared" of separatists. But as Yeltsin spoke, news agencies quoted Interior Ministry officials in Grozny, who said battles continued to rage in the center of the city. It was reported that virtually every Russian police checkpoint had been surrounded by separatists, who were firing automatic weapons and mortar shells just 100 meters from the Moscow-backed administration's nearly deserted headquarters. The contrast between the situation on the ground and Yeltsin's bland reassurances was stark. And it cast grave doubts on Yeltsin's announcement that the Security Council had agreed to a plan to end the 15-month Chechen war. Details of the plan were not divulged.

The man responsible for the Chechen operation, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, did little to dispel the impression that the Yeltsin administration is either totally out of touch or trying its own brand of "spin control." Grachev continued to insist that the raging battle for Grozny was "nothing special." Yesterday, as his own security officials warned from Grozny that the situation was becoming "critical," Grachev said everything was "under control." He added that the panic was caused by "five to six rebels firing in three or four districts."

Hinting at what may lie ahead for Grachev, Yeltsin's campaign manager, First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, said Chechnya was the Russian president's "heaviest burden" and the greatest threat to his re-election bid. Soskovets also said that more and more people were advising Yeltsin to assign blame for the failed Chechen campaign.

In the run-up to the June presidential election, Yeltsin has rid himself of nearly all the politicans on his team who propelled him to power. Along with a slew of middle-level officials, they have been made responsible for most failures in economic and social reforms. But firing Grachev will not end the war in Chechnya -- nor will it absolve Yeltsin of responsibility for starting the bloody conflict.

A month ago, as he kicked off his re-election campaign, Yeltsin said he had made some mistakes. He added, "maybe Chechnya was one of them." Just how big a mistake may only become clear after the June elections.