Russian troops on alert as Chechen conflict rages

September 06, 1994|By New York Times News Service

MOSCOW -- Russian troops stationed near the border of the secessionist Chechen republic were put on top alert yesterday after dozens of people died in the worst fighting yet between the Chechen government and troops opposed to secession.

Russia, which refused to recognize the secession three years ago, last month began backing an opposition group but promised that Russian troops would not intervene.

Russian Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev said yesterday that commanders in the North Caucasian military district "were ordered to limit the conflict immediately if it spreads outside Chechnya's borders." Chechnya is a mostly Muslim republic of 1.3 million people between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Moscow has had testy relations with the warring tribes of the Caucasus for centuries, and tension has been high since Chechnya declared its independence. The secession presents President Boris N. Yeltsin's administration with the strongest challenge from within Russia.

Early yesterday, troops loyal to the secessionist president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, captured the rebel stronghold of Argun, 12 miles from Grozny, the capital, Russian news services reported. Each side claimed it had inflicted heavy casualties.

Chechnya's interior minister, Ayub Satuyev, said that 40 troops loyal to Russia were killed. Russian news services quoted opposition leaders as saying that there were nearly 50 casualties among the government forces. Neither claim could be confirmed.

Last night, the Russian independent television station NTV showed pictures from Chechen television that reportedly showed the interrogation of a Chechen man accused of spying for Russia. The Dudayev government also claimed that four Russian military advisers were captured in Argun; Moscow did not comment.

The commander of the opposition forces in Argun, Ruslan Labazanov, was said to have escaped the fighting unharmed, but Mr. Dudayev insisted that he had routed the opposition.

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that Chechen government troops were regrouping to attack two other opposition-held towns in Chechnya.

The battles between the secessionist Chechen government and rebel forces aligned with Russia began in earnest last week, when at least a dozen people were killed. Moscow has denied supplying arms to the rebels but has not hidden its backing for Mr. Dudayev's opponents.

Last month, Moscow put its support behind a rebel leader, Umar Avturkhanov, after he formally broke with the Chechen government and pledged allegiance to Russia during a visit to Moscow.

But Chechnya is a turbulent region, ruled by blood feuds and clan loyalties, where many rebel leaders are vying for power. One of them is Ruslan Khasbulatov, one of Mr. Yeltsin's most bitter political enemies.

Mr. Khasbulatov, a Chechen who was speaker of the Russian Parliament, was a leader of the armed insurrection against Mr. Yeltsin last fall. He was arrested for treason and then freed under a general amnesty.

Mr. Khasbulatov began traveling across Chechnya last month, trying to position himself as an alternative to Mr. Dudayev. But on Sunday, Mr. Khasbulatov said he would form a military unit and join forces with Mr. Avturkhanov to overthrow Mr. Dudayev. This leaves Moscow with a hard choice about whom to support in an attempt to undo the Chechen secession.

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