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Chechnya: Fighting in Chechnya Clouds Yeltsin Inauguration

Prague, August 9 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen rebels are reported to be continuing to hold much of the center of Grozny today in the fourth straight day of heavy fighting.

Earlier today, the rebels claimed they had taken control of the main administrative center of the Moscow-backed government in Grozny and the Interior ministry building. The claims and counter-claims of both sides, as well as casualty figures, are difficult to confirm.

Interfax quotes a Russian field commander as saying that a Russian force of some 7,000 soldiers is isolated in the city center by Chechen attackers. Correspondents say that about 2,000 to 3,000 Chechen fighters, operating in mobile bands of 20 to 30 among the ruined buildings of the downtown area, are also resisting Russian armored attacks to dislodge them.

The fighting in Grozny cast a cloud today over the second-term inauguration of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow and have prompted a new round of public criticism of his Chechen policy.

Several Russian newspapers today compared the Chechen assault on Grozny with the Tet offensive of the Vietnam War. Russian commentators said that, like the Tet offensive by the Viet Cong in 1968, the Chechen fighters have made it clear that Moscow is as far from winning the war in Chechnya as it was when the war began with a battle for Grozny some 20 months ago.

Both Yeltsin's opponents and some supporters today accused him of being unable, or unwilling, to solve the Chechen conflict despite his campaign promises to end it peacefully. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said that Yeltsin bore ultimate responsibility for the war.

The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of the most vocal pro-Yeltsin newspapers during his election campaign, accused the government of "indifference" for the lives of Russian soldiers.

A debate on Chechnya and other issues is scheduled for later today in the Russian lower house, or Duma. Legislators are due to confirm or reject Yeltsin's nomination of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to head his second-term government.

Chernomyrdin tried yesterday to dampen fears that the war in Chechnya was escalating again.

"The Chechen rebels will get a response but this will not be a full-scale military action," he said "We cannot allow the worsening situation to take the Afghan path," referring to the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Correspondents say that the rebel attack on Grozny is a deliberate effort to embarrass Yeltsin during his inauguration and remind Russian voters that the President has failed to end the war as promised. Separatist leaders claim that since Yeltsin was re-elected last month, Moscow forces have stepped up their military campaign by pummeling Chechen strongholds.

Moscow has termed the attacks "special operations against bandit formations", but correspondents say the operations resemble the same large-scale attacks on rebel strongholds which have characterized the war since the beginning.

Yesterday, the leader of the Chechen attack on Grozny made an ironic offer to restart the peace process by holding talks with Russian forces in the capital. Shamil Basayev, who led a hostage-taking raid on the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk last year, said that his forces now control the Chechen capital and would guarantee the security of any Russian peace negotiators.

Correspondents say that the Chechen rebels are likely to begin withdrawing from the capital soon, now that they have made their point during Yeltsin's inauguration.

The Chechen fighters have little hope of holding the city, which is surrounded by tens of thousands of federal troops equipped with heavy armor and aircraft. Instead, the rebels are likely to try to slip out of the capital as they slipped in, having demonstrated that the war in Chechnya continues unabated.