Battle for Chechnya Brings Out the Bizarre

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The second battle for Grozny has begun. Russian tanks and infantry fought their way into the suburbs of the Chechen capital Tuesday in the face of fierce resistance by its guerrilla defenders. In 1994, Russia suffered heavy casualties — and killed thousands of Chechens, both fighters and civilians — in a vain attempt to take control of the capital. The latest battle may be as grim. "Some Russian leaders seem to believe that anyone who hasnít fled Chechnya by now is fair game," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "A former prime minister said Sunday that eliminating bandits and terrorists in Chechnya may require wiping out half of the population."

A Russian field commander Tuesday offered a $1 million bounty on the head of the Islamic separatist guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev, but that may be simply posturing. "Correspondents manage to interview Basayev without much trouble, and heís not exactly hiding out," says Meier. "It would require a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Russian special forces donít know where he is." Even more bizarre, perhaps, is the mounting speculation that President Boris Yeltsin is unhappy with the spectacular rise in Prime Minister Vladimir Putinís popularity prompted by the Chechnya operation. "Even though the Kremlinís game plan was to use the war to get Putin elected president next year, thereís now talk that Yeltsin is unhappy about his prime minister getting all the glory. Thatís even raised the fear that Putin may be fired." But while Yeltsin may be quite capable of sacking his handpicked heir, heíll probably let Putin sack Grozny first.