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Moscow 'loses' top general in Grozny assault

The Times (London)

A SENIOR Russian general is missing in action three days into a full-scale assault on Grozny in which Moscow planned to seize both the capital and the initiative in its stalled Chechen war.

Officials were forced to admit they had no news of General Mikhail Malofeyev even as Chechen rebels staged another fierce fightback in the ruined suburbs of their capital.

General Malofeyev, commander of Russia's northern army group, disappeared three days ago in Grozny's northwestern Staropromoslovsky district - and may be dead - the Interior Ministry confirmed last night. His disappearance is a grave blow to the image of a controlled and unstoppable attack Russia is trying to project. It may also give rebels in the breakaway republic a substantial bargaining chip.

The admission led Russia's news bulletins yesterday, when the army had hoped to announce further gains by frontline troops in Grozny after the city's defenders suffered their worst casualties in a single day in the war so far by their own estimate: 45 dead and 60 wounded.

Instead, despite the heavy Chechen losses, Russian troops are still locked in house-to-house fighting in which narrow strips of territory are constantly changing hands.

Officials claimed earlier this week that the Staropromoslovsky district had been "liberated". But it was here that rebels seized General Malofeyev, and here that Bislan Gantamirov, a key pro-Moscow commander, said bluntly yesterday that his troops are making no progress against withering fire from rebel snipers, machineguns and anti-tank grenade launchers.

Grozny's tiny defence force has turned its five-storey blocks of flats into daunting fortresses. With snipers positioned on their roofs and machinegun nests on their lowest two floors, they are almost impossible to capture intact, General Gantamirov said. He leads several thousand pro-Moscow Chechen fighters armed by the Russian military late last year and charged with spearheading the push into the capital.

For now General Gantamirov's men have the full backing of Russian attack jets, gunships, tanks and artillery, which yesterday continued their pounding of the city and of the rebels' mountain stronghold to the south.

Vladimir Putin, the acting President, has also singled out the role of the pro-Moscow Chechens as crucial if Russia is ever to impose peace on a place it considers a breeding ground for war.

In the long run, however, the arming of Chechens against Chechens is a recipe for a civil war that may even now be under way. "We could end this thing tomorrow if the Kremlin let us," a Russian military doctor said at a checkpoint in Kerla Yurt on the western approach to Grozny.

"But the next war, the civil war, has already begun, and that will go on God knows how long."

The doctor gestured with his rifle to a row of seven burnt-out tanks beside the road. "You may feel safe now, but after nightfall you would be a fool to walk outside."

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