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TROOPS TO SEAL BORDERS OF CHECHNYA

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Racheting up the likelihood of war in the Caucasus and political division at home, President Boris N. Yeltsin Saturday ordered troops to seal the borders and airspace of the secessionist republic of Chechnya.

While Russian bombers pummeled the outskirts of the republic's capital, Grozny, columns of tanks and thousands of Russian troops were sent to the mostly Muslim region, which has been trying to wrench itself from Russia for more than three years.On Friday, Yeltsin authorized the use of force to the quell the increasingly violent civil war in the region, and told his Cabinet to "employ all means at the state's disposal." He then sent his chiefs for Defense, Interior and domestic intelligence to the border.

Yeltsin is clearly raising the stakes by handing more power to the military, considering negotiations with Chechnya's president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and issuing edicts that infuriate the Parliament. He has repeatedly stated that he has no constitutional alternative but to calm the bloodshed in Chechnya, which is an oil-rich and strategically important part of the Russian Federation.

As has been the case since the 19th century, many countries have interests in the eventual resolution of any conflict in the Caucasus, a region where oil, political alliances and transportation networks determine power politics from Central Asia to Western Europe.

In Russia, using force to preserve democracy has bitter connotations. Even Yeltsin's friends in the Parliament oppose a war for a place most Russians associate with crime, particularly because Chechnya is the home of the country's most lethal and effective gangster groups.

Most of the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus are embroiled in war - Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia - and most Russians have too many economic and social problems of their own to care about them.

"The first steps have been made toward an extremely dangerous decision to use military force to settle the Chechen conflict," said Yegor Gaidar, leader of the liberal Russia's Choice faction of the Parliament and one of Yeltsin's earliest and most aggressive allies for economic reform. "The party of war has scored a big victory and Russian democracy could suffer serious damage."

On the other hand, Yeltsin cannot permit himself to look as if he cannot defend the borders of his nation. Paradoxically, domestic politics seems to demand that he act firmly but without force.

"President Yeltsin is facing the most difficult choice in his life," the newspaper Izvestia said Saturday.

On Thursday, both houses of Parliament voted to oppose any state of emergency in the republic and to work for a peaceful solution to the conflict there.