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Chechnya: Grozny Attack Shows Strength of Chechen Separatists

Prague, August 7 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's assault on Grozny by hundreds of Chechen fighters underscores the fact that despite recent Russian pummeling of their strongholds, the separatists remain well-armed and numerous enough to attack Moscow's forces wherever and whenever they choose.

The rebels stormed the Russian-controlled capital of Chechnya at dawn yesterday in heavy fighting. They also attacked the nearby towns of Gudermes and Argun. Reports today described Russian helicopter gunships circling the sky above Grozny, firing missles into the same downtown blocks that Moscow's forces seized in the first battles of the war in Chechnya over a year and a half ago.

The separatist attack, their biggest offensive in Chechnya in five months, follows months of what Moscow has termed "special operations against bandit formations" to wrap up the war in Chechnya, in line with a fitful peace process which began in May. The peace process, which included truce agreements, was fueled by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's campaign promises to end the war in Chechnya and his dismissal of such hard-line backers of a military solution as former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev.

But correspondents report that the special operations closely resemble the large-scale Russian attacks on several separatist strongholds at once, which have characterized the Kremlin's war on the separatists since its inception.

Elizabeth Fuller, an expert on Chechnya at the Open Media Research Institute (OMRI) in Prague, says that Moscow's recent operations may have been launched by Russian field commanders who still want to end the war by force. At the very least, she says, the commanders want to revenge themselves by killing Chechen separatist leaders responsible for such setbacks as last year's hostage-taking in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk. Fuller says that the Russian operations have now driven Chechen forces to respond in kind, derailing the peace process.

Separatist spokesman Movladi Udogov yesterday called the Grozny assault the separatists' own "special operation against the Russian forces." Tim Guldimann of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is mediating the peace process, told reporters yesterday that talks originally requested by the Chechen separatists for later this week were now unlikely and warned that the renewed fighting would only worsen the conflict.

Analysts say that Chechen separatists are able to continue defying Moscow's forces because they are able to get the arms they need both from within and outside the breakaway republic. Fuller estimates that the separatists obtain 70 percent of their weapons through barter with demoralized Russian soldiers. She says the rest come via Georgia from Turkey, sent by a committed and prosperous diaspora of Georgians living largely in Turkey and Jordan.

Correspondents say that the most recent Chechen attack on Grozny demonstrates that the separatists are continuing to rely on their strategy of exhausting Moscow's forces through a war of attrition, which they are prepared to wage over decades. Moscow's forces, concentrated in their own strongholds and checkpoints, make forays to rid towns and villages of rebels by day, but the rebels soon return under the cover of night. The separatists have also shown they can infiltrate Grozny at will, most recently for three days of heavy fighting in March.

Irina de Chikoff, correspondent for the French newspaper "Le Figaro," sums up the latest fighting in the breakaway republic this way. She says that the attack on Grozny seems aimed at showing Moscow once more that there is no military solution in Chechnya. The Kremlin knows that, she says, but it continues to use force in hopes of strengthening its negotiating position for dictating peace terms. The strategy of the separatists is to simply keep deflating its adversary's hopes.