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The War Drags On In Chechnya

Prague, March 18 (RFE/RL) - "Russia is showing its muscles" says Salid Dumdayev, one of many Chechens who managed to flee the village of Sernovodsk before it was destroyed by Russian troops during recent artillery and rocket assaults.

Dumdayev used to be a professor of Russian literature. Now he is a refugee in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. He lost everything: his books, his job and his home.

Dumdayev is a victim of a recent series of Russian assaults in Chechen villages and communities, which, the Russian military claims, harbor Chechen separatist fighters.

Within the last two weeks or so, Russian troops have been busy in the villages of Sernovodsk and Samashki, Bamut and Achkhoi-Martan, and the capital city of Grozny itself. Yesterday, the Russian media reported new military attacks against the village of Vedeno. All these places in are in the southern part of Chechnya. The northern part is said to be controlled by the Moscow-sponsored Chechen "government" of Doku Zavgayev.

The Russian assault tactics are always the same. After long and repeated barrages of artillery and rocket fire, and after a repeated air bombardment, the soldiers move in to cleanse the area from "bandits and other undesirable elements." reports say These, invariably, also include many women, children and older folks.

It is impossible to establish precisely the number of casualties in this war. But it is certain that during the 15 months of hostilities, many thousands have died - some estimates put the number of dead at more than 30,000 - many have been wounded and maimed, and uncounted numbers have been turned into homeless refugees.

Chechnya has become a symbol of human tragedy. But it is also a focus of an intense political intrigue. From the very beginning the Chechen separatist movement has been seen in Moscow as representing a danger to Russia's national integrity and a challenge to Moscow's authority. This view is today stronger than ever.

Speaking last week (Mar 15) at a session of the State Duma, Russia's Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov warned that a withdrawal of Russian troops now "would lead to a chain of events representing a direct threat to the Russian state," harming its international standing and playing into the hands of "criminal elements."

And so, Russia appears determined to continue "showing its muscles" in trying to bomb Chechnya into submission. The operation has recently intensified, apparently spurred by President Boris Yeltsin's insistence that the conflict ends before the June presidential election.

Last week (Mar 15) Yeltsin announced that he had found the way to end the conflict. He stopped short of providing details, but said that his security council had approved a plan to do so. He said that he would made the plan public in a forthcoming nationwide address.

Today the Russian media reported that Russia's Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had said that the military would begin withdrawing troops from Chechnya in April. He was said to have noted that the withdrawal would mark a stage in the overall peace process. But Grachev was also reported to have said that interiorl ministry troops would stay.

The Chechen separatists seem unmoved. Meeting yesterday with a group of foreign press reporters, Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev condemned the Russian military tactics as "acts of terrorism," and pledged to step up the armed struggle against the Russians.

But he also was quick to say that he would be "ready to meet any (Russian) official capable of holding his promises" to negotiate the end of hostilities. This, he said, could include the communists. "Anything would be better," he said, "than the criminal (Yeltsin) regime that is eliminating my people."

In the meantime, the situation in Chechnya is "deteriorating," to use the euphemistic expression used by Tim Guldimann, head of the "Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe"(osce) mission in Grozny. Guldimann said that much of the blame for that should go to Russian bombardments of Chechen villages.

Chechen Moscow-installed leader Zavgayev seems to agree with that assessment. His spokesman told the Russian media last week that indiscriminate shelling of Sernovodsk and other villages merely plays into the hands of separatist forces.

Speaking to Western reporters yesterday, former Russian literature professor Dumdayev said he was through with teaching literature. "There is only one thing left for me," he said, "it is to take up arms, join the (separatist) fighters who protect my people, and fight for dignity and independence of my country."