Chechen Rebels Flee as Russia Makes Key Win

Article excerpt

RUSSIAN troops have gained a strategic military victory by capturing the last separatist stronghold in rebel Chechnya.

But the four-month-old war in the mountainous North Caucasus region may still be far from over.

The profile of the Chechen conflict has dramatically changed since the strategic town of Shali fell on Friday, following the swift Russian capture of two key rebel bastions, Argun and Gudermes, earlier last week.

The defiant Chechens, who surprised many by holding out against their militarily superior aggressor this long, are sure to wage a vicious guerrilla war against the Russians, a grim prospect that analysts say could evolve into a second Afghanistan.

"Russian armed forces will take adequate measures if the remaining forces of {rebel leader Gen. Dzhokhar} Dudayev try to launch {such} an offensive," Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told the ITAR-Tass news agency in an ominous warning.

Sunny spring weather would also help the Russians further pummel the Chechens, who have little antiaircraft equipment.

Clinton under pressure to cancel visit

For now, the dramatic shift in the war could not have come at a better time for President Boris Yeltsin, who has been criticized at home and abroad for his indiscriminate use of force in the rebel republic, which has had a centuries-old history of animosity toward Russia.

The fall of Shali, about 15 miles southeast of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, means large-scale fighting will almost certainly be over when President Clinton and other world leaders visit Russia in May to honor its stance against Nazi Germany during World War II. Mr. Clinton had been under pressure at home not to visit Russia because of the Kremlin's campaign in Chechnya.

No exact figures are available, but Moscow's Human Rights Commission has said that 24,000 civilians have been killed in Grozny alone. And Col. Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, who heads Russian forces in Chechnya, told ITAR-Tass Thursday that 1,426 soldiers had died.

While the West has spoken out against President Yeltsin's indiscriminate use of force in the region, most countries have refrained from being too critical of the Russian president, whom they see as the only hope for Russian democracy. United States Defense Secretary William Perry, who is on a visit to four former Soviet republics, is expected to discuss Chechnya and other issues with Russian defense leaders in Moscow today.

Russia, which suffered heavy losses early on because of poorly planned and ill-timed infantry advances, also would like an end to the war, which began when Yeltsin sent tanks and troops into Chechnya on Dec. …