Yeltsin vows to ease war as shells rain on Grozny


MOSCOW -- Making clear its intention to continue an offensive in Chechnya despite domestic or foreign criticism, Russia's National Security Council met here yesterday as the army unleashed its most powerful artillery barrage yet on the capital of the secessionist southern region.

As Russian forces pummeled the rebel capital with shells from artillery positioned in several nearby villages, President Boris N. Yeltsin vowed yet again to rein in the furious attack.

But Mr. Yeltsin appeared to veer between peace initiatives and heightened bellicosity. He told his human rights commissioner, Sergei A. Kovalyov, that it was "too early" to stop the war.

Yet he told Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev that he was surprised to learn that the bombing of the rebel capital had continued.

Adding to the sense of disorientation, the bulletins announcing Mr. Yeltsin's order to ease the bombardment ran across Russian television screens as they appeared to show half the city bursting into flames.

Later, the president dismissed the head of Russian state television because he did not like the station's coverage of the war.

"I can't answer the question of what I saw in his eyes," said Mr. Kovalyov, who has spent much of the past month in Grozny, the Chechen capital. He denounced Mr. Yeltsin's actions there, after their hourlong, private meeting yesterday.

Speaking to the Security Council, Mr. Yeltsin said he wanted to set a date for wrapping up military actions in Chechnya and move regular army forces out of the region so that internal security police could take over.

But, with Western and Russian reporters noting the increased intensity of the battle, that date seemed farther away than every before.

"In these conditions," the Security Council said in a statement released here last night, "without abandoning efforts to seek a political settlement, it is vital as soon as possible to overcome armed resistance and wipe out illegal armed groups in order to restore constitutional legality."

But the council also admitted that the offensive, which began Dec. 11, when Mr. Yeltsin sent 40,000 troops to quell the Chechens' three-year drive for independence, was disorganized.

"It is also important," the statement continued, "to eliminate a certain lack of coordination between actions of the military and the measures of other ministries and departments."

The coordination problems were discussed at length yesterday by the Security Council, which includes the heads of the most important ministries -- Defense, Interior -- as well as Mr. Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, and the head of the federal counterintelligence service, one of the successors to the KGB.

Mr. Yeltsin, acting as if he were unaware of the events unfolding in Chechnya, demanded to know why the bombing of Grozny was not stopped when he first ordered that it end last week.

"We must clear up why we have such an ambiguous picture whether the bombing of Grozny was stopped in accordance with my decision or whether it wasn't," Mr. Yeltsin told the dozen council members. "That was announced to the whole world, and Russia has learned about it, but there is information the bombing wasn't stopped."

Looking directly at General Grachev, Mr. Yeltsin said, "I want to hear absolutely precise information from the defense minister."

That may be a sign that Mr. Yeltsin is preparing to sacrifice General Grachev to the mounting furor over the military debacle in Grozny, where official Russian statistics say nearly 300 Russian servicemen have died -- a number that most observers say is far too low.

The continued bombing raises serious questions about whether Mr. Yeltsin's military leaders are obeying his orders, or whether he is saying one thing publicly and ordering another in private.

But it is not clear in what direction Mr. Yeltsin is moving, because almost every day he issues flagrantly contradictory signs such as promising an end to combat even as it escalates.

Yesterday he received a letter from President Clinton, who appealed for a halt to attacks on civilians in the Chechen capital while continuing to note that the United States considers the issue an internal Russian matter.

Taking advantage of the freedom of speech now allowed here, Mr. Yeltsin's former allies among the liberal intellectuals have attacked him with vitriol and contempt. The Moscow press has crusaded against Mr. Yeltsin's policy in Chechnya, demanding an end to the fighting, and it has also ridiculed the Russian leader.

Mr. Yeltsin's popularity, as measured in opinion polls, has sunk lower than at any time since he took office in 1991. Poking his head above the Kremlin Wall, he can see few supporters, personal or institutional, that have not already compromised themselves in Chechnya.

The Moscow News yesterday put out its first special issue since October 1993, when Mr. Yeltsin turned his tanks on the parliament building. The issue was filled with quotes from public officials denouncing the war.

There was also a stark banner at the bottom of the front page, highlighted in black: "In a sign of protest against the war in Chechnya, hang this special issue of Moscow News on the door of your apartment entrance, in the corridor of your office building, or at your bus stop."

By noon yesterday, hundreds of people across Moscow had already complied.

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