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    Russia Pours Troops Into Breakaway Region

    By Lee Hockstader
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, December 12, 1994; Page A01

    MOSCOW, DEC. 11 -- In its largest offensive military action in 15 years, Russia today poured troops and armor into the rebel southern region of Chechnya, which has resisted Moscow's rule since it declared independence in 1991.

    At dawn, thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles swept into the breakaway republic in three columns from the east, west and northwest, encountering light resistance and inflicting some casualties, according to news reports from the area. By this evening the troops had stopped short of storming the Chechen capital, Grozny, 1,000 miles south of Moscow, where several thousand lightly armed volunteers have vowed a bitter fight against the Russians.

    Events Leading Up to the Russian Invasion

    * Sept. 5, 1991 -- The government of Checheno-Ingushetia, which supported a hard-line coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, resigns under pressure from the pro-independence Congress of the Chechen People, led by former air force general Dzhokhar Dudayev.

    * October 1991 -- Dudayev launches campaign to topple the Moscow-backed temporary administration of the region. He wins the backing of 80 percent of the electorate and unilaterally declares his country independent.

    * November 1991 -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin sends troops to Grozny. Dudayev's forces blockade them at the airport and Yeltsin pulls them out after three days.

    * June 1992 -- Chechnya and Ingushetia split. Ingushetia joins the Russian Federation. Russia effectively allows Chechnya to go its own way, but does not recognize Chechen independence.

    * Aug. 2, 1994 -- The opposition Provisional Council led by Umar Avturkhanov starts fighting to topple Dudayev and says it is seizing power. Russia backs the council.

    * Nov. 25, 1994 -- Moscow-backed rebels attack Grozny with tanks and artillery. Rebels pull back the next day after street fighting and Dudayev claims victory.

    * Nov. 29 -- Yeltsin calls on both sides in Chechnya to disarm. Russian planes bomb Grozny.

    * Nov. 30 -- A new bombing raid launched over Chechnya. Russia sends troops and equipment to the borders in massive show of force.

    * Dec. 6 -- Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev meets Dudayev. Both agree to not use force to resolve the crisis.

    * Dec. 9 -- Yeltsin orders his government to use "all available measures" to disarm Chechen forces.

    * Dec. 10 -- Russsia seals off Chechen borders and airspace.

    * Dec. 11 -- Russia's Tass news agency announces three columns of Russian troops have crossed into Chechnya.

    President Boris Yeltsin said in a statement tonight that the troops had moved in "to help find a political solution and to defend the people" of Chechnya and to protect "the integrity of Russia," the Russian Tass news agency reported. Yeltsin said he remains hopeful that peace talks planned for Monday could resolve the crisis without further bloodshed, adding that he had ordered that no force be used against civilians.

    {President Clinton described the action as an internal Russian affair and said, "We hope that order can be restored with a minimum amount of bloodshed," the Associated Press reported from Miami.}

    The Russian thrust was the most extensive by Moscow's troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. It marked a decisive step by Yeltsin, whose patience reportedly has worn thin through months of escalating tensions between Moscow and Grozny and two weeks of confrontational crisis.

    Unlike most of the ethnic and national conflicts that have erupted along Russia's southern flank since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Chechen hostilities are unfolding on what Russia -- and the world -- recognizes as Russian territory. That has raised the stakes of using force against Grozny, a move that already has produced an open split between Yeltsin and his political allies, many of whom strongly oppose military intervention.

    Grigory Yavlinsky, head of a major democratic reform bloc in the Russian parliament, said: "We're against our children being killed {in Chechnya}. We're against democracy being established using these methods."

    Reports from Grozny said the city of 400,000 was quiet. It was not immediately clear whether the Russians had merely paused to await the talks and to give civilians a chance to flee the city ahead of a major assault or plan a long siege to wear down the Chechen forces and compel them to negotiate.

    Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who has defied the Kremlin at every turn, declared that war had already begun. But Chechen Economics Minister Taimaz Abubakarov said he plans to attend the talks with Russia Monday as head of the Chechen government delegation.

    "We will defend ourselves," declared Dudayev, 50, a former Soviet air force general who has staked his career on opposition to Moscow.

    The ethnic potpourri of the rugged Caucasus region has always coexisted uneasily with Russia, requiring constant attention from the Kremlin especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union. But Chechnya is alone among the Caucasian regions in having demanded full independence from Moscow and sticking to its position even by refusing to vote in Russian elections.

    Landlocked Chechnya was a vital regional transport hub and important oil refining center long before it declared independence three years ago. Alarmed by the precedent, Yeltsin sent troops to Grozny then but was forced to withdraw them in the face of opposition from the Chechens and the Russian parliament.

    Since then, efforts to reach an accommodation between Moscow and Grozny have been fruitless. Russian officials meanwhile have stepped up allegations that Chechnya, a Connecticut-sized enclave of 1.2 million largely Muslim people with ancient tribal roots in the Caucasus, is providing a safe haven for terrorists, drug traffickers and arms peddlers.

    Earlier this year, Moscow adopted a thinly veiled policy of helping armed Chechen insurgents seeking to topple Dudayev. That opposition, together with Russian troops recruited by the successor agency to the KGB secret police, launched a poorly planned and executed assault on Grozny on Nov. 26. When the smoke cleared, Dudayev's forces had captured more than 20 Russian troops.

    After that, Yeltsin, who is under increasing pressure from nationalists to assert Russian interests, ordered a buildup of Russian forces on Chechnya's borders to disarm "illegal armed groups."

    Although the Russian POWs were freed last week, Yeltsin ordered on Friday that "all available measures" be used to disarm the Chechen forces and restore "constitutional order" in the region.

    On Saturday, Yeltsin, 63, underwent a minor operation on his nose that officials said would keep him away from the office for about a week. He made no public appearances today.

    Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met today with the leaders of Russia's two houses of parliament. The meeting seemed an effort to stem opposition among reformist politicians to using force against the breakaway republic.

    Several hundred demonstrators gathered in freezing weather in downtown Moscow today to denounce Yeltsin's decision to use force against Chechnya.

    "We received information that Grozny will be stormed tonight," said former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, a leading reform advocate. "The attack will end in a sea of blood. Grozny should not be stormed. It is a Russian town on Russian soil."

    Gaidar charged Saturday that hard-liners in the Russian government and security services had conceived the attack on Grozny as a way to derail Russian democratic reforms. He said the hard-liners were counting on the Chechens to respond to the invasion with a campaign of terror against Moscow. That would lead Yeltsin to impose a state of emergency, suspending civil liberties and other elements of democracy, Gaidar said.

    Tass reported that Russian First Deputy Premier Oleg Soskovets was named to head a government team handling the Chechen crisis. Soskovets, who is close to Yeltsin, also has strong ties to Russia's industrial lobby.

    Journalists who witnessed the advance of the Russian columns into Chechnya today said they saw several hundred armored vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as heavy mortars and mine-clearing and bridge-building equipment; attack helicopters and warplanes flew overhead. Loudspeakers on the Russian vehicles warned people to lay down their weapons.

    Russian news media estimates of the number of Russian troops involved in the operation ranged from 20,000 to 40,000, including several thousand paratroops. Estimates of Chechen strength ranged from a few hundred armed fighters to 12,000.

    The Reuter news agency reported that at least one of the three troop columns hit a snag before reaching the Chechen border when angry villagers in the mountainous region of Ingushetia blocked about 20 armored personnel carriers. Other reports indicated that one of the columns, crossing the Dagestan region east of Grozny, never made it to the border.

    Moscow's Echo Moskvy radio station, quoting Ingush Vice President Boris Agapov, said that five Ingush citizens were killed and at least 10 injured in clashes with the Russian troops. Russian television tonight showed light tanks on fire, apparently hit by enemy fire on Chechen territory. In other pictures, Russian helicopters fired rockets at unidentified ground targets.

    But in Grozny's main square, only a few hundred lightly armed Chechens gathered to show their strength, and there was little in the way of defensive preparations evident in the city.

    Chechen Foreign Minister Shamsedin Yusef said: "They cannot kill every Chechen. There are 1 million of us, and every one of us will fight."

    Some commentators in Moscow have warned that an invasion of Chechnya could spark an uprising throughout the restless Caucasus region, which Russia conquered in the 19th century after years of battle and bloodshed. Others have warned of an "Afghanistan on Russian soil" -- a chilling reminder for Russians who remember Moscow's long and costly equivalent of the Vietnam War.

    Under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Kremlin used troops already stationed in the Baltic region to bring pressure on the governments of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to prevent them from asserting independence, but the scale of military operations was much smaller than the new deployment in Chechnya.

    Soviet troops also were used to put down nationalist turmoil in Georgia in 1989 and Azerbaijan in 1990 but against opposition movements that put up little resistance and had very few weapons.

    There have been dire predictions that the Chechens could retaliate for Russia's intervention by undertaking a terrorism campaign in Moscow and other Russian cities. Moscow is home to thousands of Chechens, many of whom are regarded by Russians as gangsters. Russian police say Chechens operate some of Moscow's most violent crime rings, controlling illegal drugs and weapons and running ruthless extortion rackets.

    Tonight, Dudayev pleaded for peace. "We call on everyone to stop in time and not to allow the flames of war to spread," he said. "We must expose the dirty plans of the bloody executioners. Reactionary imperial forces {are} preparing to deal a perfidious inhuman blow to the Caucasus, which would turn the entire region into a bloodbath."

    © Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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