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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK

Russian press questions market attack

The Russian media wants more information from Chechnya

The Russian press has reported an attack on a market in the Chechen capital, Grozny, but has questioned the truth of the reports and carried strong denials by the military.

Meanwhile, the aims of the military operation in Chechnya are once again being linked to politics as elections loom in Russia.

'Chechens bombed their own market'

Russia's NTV, the commercial channel known for its independent reporting during the 1994-96 war with Chechnya, reported simply that, "according to reports from the Chechen capital", 118 people were killed and over 400 injured "in a powerful explosion" at Grozny's central market.

Battle for the Caucasus
Russian Government information chief Aleksandr Mikhaylov was quoted by NTV as suggesting the blast had been caused by the Chechens themselves.

"Mikhaylov did not rule out the explosion in Grozny being a terrorist act prepared by the fighters themselves," the TV said.

Russia's TV6, politically a rival to NTV, developed the theory of Chechen responsibility.

"Some analysts think that the explosions in Grozny were arranged by Chechen terrorists to complicate the situation as Russia negotiates with the EU in Helsinki," it said.

NTV's presenter in a later bulletin seemed to express frustration at lack of access to reliable information.

"I would like to add that the situation as regards receiving information is very poor," she said.

"You will have noticed how often we go on air without being able to show any pictures from the combat zone. Almost no journalists here are being allowed access, and we can't tell you in detail what is happening."

Chechens 'misleading media'

Ekho Moskvy, NTV's sister radio station, quoted a report by the Russian Defence Ministry's press service that Chechnya had mounted a campaign to mislead the international media.

"A special battalion has been formed in Chechnya to put ideological pressure on the enemy," it said.

"The battalion consists of about 30 teams which specialise in providing services for journalists, as the military put it.

"A large number of leading observers working for various press outlets, including the world's biggest news agencies, are the target of this battalion. Extensive use is made of the internet, as well as photographs and video."

Who to believe?

The same radio station, which has publicly pledged to maintain its editorial independence, cast doubt on an official Russian army explanation for the market explosion, which suggested it was the result of a Russian "special operation" against a Chechen arms depot which involved neither aircraft nor artillery.

"A spokesman ... issued a rather strange explanation of yesterday's events in Grozny," Ekho Moskvy said.

"Colonel Aleksandr Veklich said artillery and aviation did not carry out any strikes against the Chechen capital but a so-called special operation was carried out in the area of the stock exchange. Moreover, the colonel said, the operation was not carried out by army units."

At the same time, the radio quoted ITAR-TASS news agency's London correspondent as saying it was extremely difficult to verify any reports coming out of Chechnya.

"The report of the bombardment has amazed journalistic circles in London, since it is well known that there are no western journalists in Grozny at the moment, except for The Times' correspondent Anthony Lloyd," the radio said.

"According to these circles, all the signs are that the information comes from Chechens who have lines of communication to AFP," the news agency which first reported the market explosion.

"This sharply reduces the objectivity of the source," said Ekho Moskvy.

The radio also quoted CNN television as saying reports from Chechnya had to be treated "with caution".

Full-scale war

[ image: Segodnya says Yeltsin is being pushed into a full-scale war]
Segodnya says Yeltsin is being pushed into a full-scale war
'Segodnya' newspaper, which is locked in battle with President Yeltsin's camp ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections, has alleged that Yeltsin's close advisors - "The Family" - are now pushing him into a full-scale war with Chechnya as the best pretext for cancelling the elections.

"The point is that the head-on storming of Grozny means the failure of the entire Chechen campaign," the paper wrote.

"The political consequences here will be unpredictable. After all, even if Grozny falls, the casualties incurred by the Russian Army will be catastrophic and a society unprepared for them will be demoralised.

"A victorious operation will instantly turn into a 1994-1996 model war which we will no longer be able to win.

"And then the threat of a social explosion, the Kremlin strategists believe, will prompt the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, to agree to the introduction of a state of emergency.

"This is The Family's only chance of survival, which indeed it has so far not let slip."

BBC Monitoring based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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