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Moscow Claims Control Over Chechnya But Reality Is Different

By Grigory Krichevsky And Tony Wesolowsky

Prague, March 21 (RFE/RL) - After more than fifteen months of fighting to subdue the separatist revolt, Moscow says its forces have gained control of the situation in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

But Chechen separatists say that is not true. They contend that their fighters hold vast tracts of land in southern and eastern Chechnya. They also claim control of villages both in the vicinity of the capital Grozny and near the border with neighboring Ingushetia.

RFE/RL correspondent in Chechnya says the republic basically has been carved in half. He says that supporters of the Moscow-backed government of Doku Zavgayev control broad swaths in the north. But key pockets of Chechen resistance are concentrated across eastern and southern Chechnya. In particular, Chechen fighter strongholds are reported located in the region of Gudermes (35 km east of Grozny) and in the Vedeno region (50 km south of the capital).

Observers say Russian forces have had little success in the south because of wily Chechen field commanders in the area. In particular, they mention Aslambek Abdulkhadzhiev, a close ally of Shamil Basayev and the chief in charge of defense on the village of Argun in 1995. Basayev himself led a raid on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk in which thousands of civilians were taken hostage last June.

Another key Chechen separatist leader is Khunkar Israpilov. According to RFE/RL correspondent in Chechnya, Israpilov assisted Salman Raduyev to break through the blockade of the village of Pervomayskaya during another hostage crisis in Dagestan earlier this year. Raduyev, a commander of the Gudermes region, masterminded the Chechen separatist assault that began in Kislyar and culiminated in a standoff with Russian forces in Pervomayskaya.

A few weeks ago Raduyev was reported killed, but Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev told RFE/RL the Chechen field commander is alive.

Recent attempts by Russian forces to seize the Chechen stronghold of Bamut have also become embarrassing to the Russian military. RFE/RL correspondent says Russian forces last week mounted a major assault s on the village that had once served as a Russian military base. But this week (March 18) Interfax quoted the Russian military command as saying that about 400 Chechen fighters continued to repel attacks by at least 1,500 Defense Ministry troops.

Continued fighting has also been reported in other areas of western Chechnya, in the villages of Samashki, Orekhovo and Stary Atchkhoi. Witnesses have said more than 600 civilians have been killed in the shelling of Samashki in the last few days, though this figure has not been confirmed.

Today, the Russian Military Command in Chechnya was reported to hold talks with the separatists to convince them to lay down their arms.

But in a recent exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Dudayev said the Russians were merely trying to drive a wedge between his supporters and the Chechen nation. Dudayev said Russian efforts would not succeed.

A recent Chechen separatist assault on Grozny showed just how tenuous Russian control of Chechnya still is. After launching a surprise offensive at the beginning of the month, Dudayev's supporters managed to occupy over two thirds of the largely-ruined Chechen capital. Over 200 Russian servicemen were said to have died in fighting. Even now, Western correspondents report new clashes and sporadic firing in Grozny. This refutes Russian assertions that its military succeeded in mopping up all major Chechen resistance in the capital.

With battles raging in the south, Zavgayev concentrates efforts to preserve control on northern regions by signing a series of separate peace accords with individual villages. The tactic is designed to create a so-called "zone of peace".

Zavgayev has said six of 18 regions have been willing to conclude such agreement with the Moscow-backed authorities. Russian Defense Ministry officials say the settlements of Naursky, Nadterechny, and Shelkovskoy have agreed to cooperate in the plan as long as Russian forces are guaranteed security in their regions.

This "zone of peace" concept, first articulated by Zavgayev, is reported to feature prominently in President Boris Yeltsin's prospective peace plan for Chechenya.

The plan was reported to have been discussed at a security council meeting in Moscow on March 15. Yeltsin said that it would be made public by the end of the month.It is generally assumed that the continuing war in Chechnya hinders his bid for reelection in the June 16 presidential poll.