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Airstrikes on Grozny End, But Not Ground Fighting

PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin on Dec. 27 told the Russian armed forces to finish the job of disarming rebels in Chechnya, saying the breakaway region posed a massive threat to Russia's stability.

Mr. Yeltsin, speaking in a nationwide television address, softened an otherwise hard-line message only by ordering a halt to air raids on the Chechen capital, Grozny.

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The Kremlin leader said he had sent thousands of troops and hundreds of armored vehicles into the north Caucasus territory to ensure the future of the entire Russian Federation, and he would not end their mission until order had been restored.

He called for starting talks and the disarmament of Chechen fighters.

But he also emphatically ruled out any question that the mainly Muslim territory be allowed to break away from the federation, leaving little room for the Chechens to maneuver in negotiations. They have refused to discuss anything but the status of Chechnya.

``Russian soldiers are defending Russia's unity ... not one territory has the right to leave Russia,'' he said.

``The actions of the gangs that resist will be strictly halted in the future as well,'' he added.

The Kremlin sent troops and tanks into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to disarm forces loyal to separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who declared the region's independence in October 1991.

``I call on you to do everything you can to fulfill this task and I believe you will do so,'' Yeltsin said Dec. 27, directly addressing the armed forces. ``Remember that the explosion of banditry on Chechen soil threatens our entire country. Your kin could be among its victims.''

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Chechen extremists have harbored terrorists, robbed 120 trains this year, and carried out bank frauds that had netted a total of $1.25 billion, he said.

The Russian president said his order would ``rule out the delivery of bomb strikes that may lead to civilian victims in Grozny.'' He also said it was important to assure the safety of civilians who wanted to leave the city.

Chechen leaders' reaction to the speech was not yet known. But in an interview with the Itar-Tass news agency beforehand, Chechen leader Dudayev showed no sign of backing down. He reiterated his demand that Russian troops be withdrawn and said the Chechen side ``doesn't want to spill Russian soldiers' blood.''

When ground troops met fierce resistance from Dudayev's men earlier this month, Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter-bombers went on bombing sorties against Grozny by day and night, causing dozens of civilian casualties and prompting international concern.

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