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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Says Presidential Palace Taken

GROZNY -- Russian forces said Thursday they had seized the Presidential Palace and hoisted the Russian flag over the battered hulk of the building -- the symbol of Chechnya's fight for independence -- as President Boris Yeltsin announced the military operation was over.

"The military stage of the restoration of the Russian constitution is effectively over," Yeltsin said in a statement released by his press service, five weeks after sending troops to crush Chechnya's three-year bid for independence on Dec.11.

Soldiers of the 276th motorized rifle regiment raised the Russian tricolor, said Colonel Ivan Skrylnik, spokesman for the Defense Ministry.

"The building has been captured, fully captured," said a government spokesman in Moscow.

Chechen fighters said Thursday they had abandoned the palace overnight after the building was virtually destroyed by weeks of Russian artillery and rocket fire. One bomb or artillery shell had penetrated the building as far as the basement.

Russian troops entered the fire-scorched, battered building, headquarters of the Chechen resistance, after it had been abandoned, Itar-Tass said.

Russian soldiers had already started removing mines, both from the building itself and from the bodies of dead Russian soldiers, the agency said.

The Chechen withdrawal gave the Russians effective control over most of the center of Grozny. Northern and western columns of Russian forces had linked up to tighten their grip on the palace, Itar-Tass said Wednesday.

But Chechen fighters pledged to continue the fighting in other parts of Grozny and to wage a guerrilla war elsewhere in the republic.

"Our new headquarters is set up and the fighters are in their positions," said Chechen Defense Minister Aslan Maskhayev. "We are ready to continue our fight for freedom."

The rebels also said they had withdrawn from the railway station, which was now in Russian hands, but they were reported to be still fighting for the central market, north of the Presidential Palace.

The towering palace, a solid concrete block at the end of Grozny's Avturkhanov Ulitsa, has taken countless hits from Russian shells and rockets since Russian troops moved in earnest to capture it on New Year's Day.

Rebel fighter Aindi Beksultanov said they had no plans to try and retake the palace. "Why? It's just a skeleton," he said.

He said they began withdrawing after the bomb hit Wednesday night. By midnight, they had evacuated all the Russian prisoners, and the last Chechen fighters withdrew at 3 A.M.

Grozny was relatively calm Thursday after a night of relentless artillery and rocket attacks. A pall of dark smoke hung over the city, amid intermittent artillery and rocket fire that was aimed to the south of Grozny's center, apparently to disrupt supply lines to the rebels.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who earlier in the week called for a cease-fire and resumption of negotiations, ruled out holding talks with Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev on Thursday. "He told me he is not willing to talk to bandits," Finnish Prime Minister Esko Aho said after meeting Chernomyrdin in Moscow. The whereabouts of the Chechen leader remain unknown.

Chernomyrdin told Aho that the war would end soon and stressed that the government knew the importance of finishing the war quickly. He also assured Aho that "there is no party of war in the Russian government, nor elsewhere in Russia," adding, "but in parliament there are some hotheads."

Chernomyrdin's comments came after Yeltsin said Wednesday he would not meet with Dudayev, whom he accused of committing genocide against his own people. But Yeltsin said that his government was prepared to talk to field commanders, clan leaders and representatives of local governments in Chechnya.

The Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, debated a draft resolution on the war in Chechnya on Thursday, declaring the use of armed forces within the Russian Federation unlawful and calling for the State Duma to impeach Yeltsin.

While the resolution fell well short of going through, many deputies expressed their anger at not being consulted on the decision to invade Chechnya and complained that they were being ignored by Yeltsin and the power ministers. A milder motion noting that "mass violations of human rights and freedoms" were being committed in Chechnya was approved.

"We can talk and talk and the war will continue," said Sergei Yermakov. "We should make a stand and demand a cease-fire and talks."

But Federation Council deputies are only too aware of their lack of influence. "The only means we have is through the budget, to stop the finance," said Aman Tuleyev, a deputy from Kemerovo, adding that the budget first had to go before the Duma and would not reach the council before mid-February.

"We need a new government and a new president," Tuleyev said, but added that because the ballot was not secret and the chairman of the upper house Vladimir Shumeiko was unwilling to change the procedure, a strongly worded resolution was unlikely.

(AP, Reuters, MT)