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Russia To Resettle Refugees In Divided Chechen Republic

By Sharon LaFraniere

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia intends to resettle tens of thousands of Chechen refugees in parts of Chechnya controlled by Russian troops -- the strongest indication to date that Moscow intends to split the small republic in two.

Putin made the comments as Russian troops battled Chechen fighters 25 miles north of Chechnya’s capital of Grozny. Chechen military sources reported heavy fighting as Russian troops pressed to control flat terrain along the Terek River and to drive the Chechens toward mountains to the south.

Putin’s plan would create a new order in Chechnya, with Russian troops protecting refugees in part of the republic, apparently in the north. The rest of the republic would remain under separatist Chechen control. Although Moscow has not acknowledged it, Chechnya effectively won independence from Russia three years ago after a war that has been described as one of President Boris Yeltsin’s biggest mistakes.

The refugees to be resettled would be among the more than 100,000 Chechens who have fled Russian air attacks that have destroyed oil depots, power stations, roads, bridges, and farmhouses and cornfields in border villages.

Most of the refugees have ended up in the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia, west of Chechnya, creating what Knut Vollebaek, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Monday called “a severe situation.”

Earlier, Russian leaders suggested their current military offensive aimed to create a buffer zone to block infiltration of guerrillas from Chechnya into other Russian republics, and to hunt down Chechen-based militants whom Putin blames for terrorist bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that killed nearly 300 people. Chechen guerrillas recently staged incursions into the neighboring republic of Dagestan, seeking to create an Islamic state.

The Russian Tass news agency quoted Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev Monday as saying Russia had succeeded in forming a security zone adjoining Chechnya, as ordered by Putin. Troshev said two Russian soldiers were killed and seven wounded in clashes Sunday.

Another military official denied reports of heavy ground fighting close to Grozny Monday. “Russian units do not join battles. The rebel bases are being shelled and bombed from the air,” he said.

A spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov suggested Russian troops had suffered more serious losses than Moscow was willing to admit. He said the Chechen guerrillas had destroyed a tank and several armored personnel carriers in skirmishes that had killed three Chechens and wounded seven others. Chechen military sources also said a Chechen missile shot down a Russian warplane in eastern Chechnya, killing a pilot.

Maskhadov does not control the rebels, and Putin said last week that Russia does not recognize Maskhadov’s government as legitimate. Monday, Maskhadov’s aides said he still hopes to negotiate with Moscow, although the Russian media are portraying him as closer and closer to the guerrillas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Yakushkin said Yeltsin had personally approved the military action.