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Russian Troops Face Tough Opposition in Chechnya

By Margaret Shapiro and Fred Hiatt
The Washington Post

Russia's invasion of its breakaway southern region of Chechnya ran into military and political flak on its second day Monday as Chechnya's neighbors in the Caucasus Mountains harassed and captured advancing troops and Chechen forces challenged the more numerous and better-equipped Russians in a rocket battle.

As Russian fighter-bombers, attack helicopters and columns of tanks closed in on the capital of the separatist region, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision to launch the offensive came under attack here from an unusual alliance of Communists and formerly loyal democratic reformists. Outside the government, only nationalist extremists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and a handful of political reformist democrats were supporting the action.

Many Russians, strife-weary and yearning for tranquility, seemed to be watching the events with wary concern amid warnings that the military thrust could escalate into a broader Caucasus war and provoke retaliatory terrorism throughout Russia. But many also seemed prepared to wait and see. Demonstrations in Moscow against the operation attracted only small crowds, and parliament did not meet Monday.

Yeltsin defended the use of force as essential to restoring constitutional rule in Russia and said the crisis must be "resolved immediately." Saying they still hope to end the confrontation and bring Chechnya back into the Russian fold peacefully, a delegation of Russian officials opened negotiations with Chechen officials in Vladikavkaz, just west of Chechnya, a landlocked enclave 1,000 miles south of Moscow that is home to about 1.2 million people of obscure, non-Slavic origin with a tradition of pugnacious independence.

The United States and most other foreign governments refrained from direct comment on the operation - Russia's largest military offensive since the Afghanistan war - saying that, unlike Afghanistan, Chechnya was an internal Russian affair. But nearby Turkey, where many ethnic Chechens live and whose relations with Russia have been strained in recent months, expressed "great concern" and called for a peaceful solution. Another interested regional force, Ukraine, also was watching developments with "alarm and concern," according to a Foreign Ministry statement in Kiev.

Chechnya, an oil-rich, largely Muslim territory that borders several other quasi-autonomous, Russian-ruled regions just west of the Caspian Sea, unilaterally declared its independence three years ago, when the Soviet Union was collapsing and many of the scores of peoples who make up the Russian Federation were growing restive. Since then, Yeltsin has brought the rest of this vast country back under Kremlin sway, but Chechnya has stubbornly held out, although it has received no international recognition of its claimed sovereignty.

Russian officials maintain that the Chechens and their leader, a former Soviet air force officer named Dzhokar Dudayev, have turned their region into a lawless nest of arms traders, money launderers and gangsters who threaten Moscow and the entire country. Many Chechens, whose ancestors fought Russian domination for decades in the 19th century and who themselves suffered heavily under Soviet rule, view their struggle as one of national and religious liberation.

The current crisis began when a semi-covert Russian operation to support Kremlin loyalists in Chechnya failed dismally, with dozens of Russian soldiers and mercenaries being taken captive. Humiliated and apparently at the limit of his patience, Yeltsin ordered the Chechens to lay down their arms or face the consequences, although Caucasian fogs, snow and short December days make this an inauspicious time for military operations.

Russian troops and tanks, from the army and Interior Ministry security units, initially intended to close in on Chechnya's capital, Grozny, from three directions with hundreds of armored vehicles and as many as 40,000 troops, according to reports from the region. But two of the three columns were delayed by opposition in neighboring Muslim regions, Dagestan and Ingushetia, and by attacks from Chechens themselves.

About 60 Russians soldiers and officers were captured by local bands supporting Chechnya's independence near the Dagestan-Chechnya border on Sunday and Monday, local officials reported. A handful were released Monday night, and Dagestani officials told Russian reporters that the rest also would soon be freed.