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YELTSIN FACES RISING ANGER OVER ASSAULT ON CHECHNYA

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Russian President Boris Yeltsin sought to stave off opposition to his increasingly bloody Chechnya campaign where Russian forces failed to seal off the rebel region's capital early Saturday after two weeks of fighting.

An aide said Yeltsin, his democratic credentials badly stained by the Chechnya campaign and his army in chaos, may address the nation today to stress the importance of Russian rule over the mainly Muslim region.A decision by the Kremlin to rush new armor into Chechnya to back a major ground offensive against its capital Grozny suggested the conflict is about to enter a new, decisive stage.

Western journalists in the republic reported reinforcements of modern Russian armor moving toward Grozny, and refugees fleeing the war-torn city spoke of fresh artillery attacks.

A government spokesman in Moscow claimed the Russian ground forces had completely sealed off Grozny.

But Western journalists said there was still a flow of traffic into Grozny from the east, although there were news reports that Argun, a town east of Grozny, may be about to fall.

Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, appealed to Yeltsin to stop fighting after Russian planes bombed Grozny. Several missiles slammed into crowds of civilians trying to clear the rubble of their wrecked homes.

The crisis appeared to be spinning out of control for Yeltsin amid growing discontent within the highest army ranks, as commanders appeared unwilling to risk their men's lives in an unpopular campaign.

The official Itar-Tass news agency said Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had sacked the entire top leadership of the North Caucasus army group and taken over control of the operation.

A ministry official later denied the Tass report.

Tass also said Grachev had told First Deputy Defense Minister Georgy Kondratyev and deputy ground troops commander Col. Gen. Eduard Vorobyov to resign.

RIA news agency said the commanders had been dismissed for "indecisiveness and inaction."

Alexander Lebed, the commander of the 14th army, said Russia's decision to send troops into Chechnya was a mistake.

"From the military point of view, the Russian army should have never been sent to Chechnya," he was quoted as saying by Russia's Ostankino television.

The operation in Chechnya, which started Dec. 11 to crush the tiny mountainous region's three-year independence bid, has been painfully slow due to low army morale and a growing sense of humiliation about the mission's lack of success.

Even a senior Yeltsin aide, asked if the rising civilian death toll in Chechnya might undermine the Russian leader's image as a democrat, conceded this would not help any leader.

"Such a situation can in no way strengthen the image of any leader," Yeltsin's adviser on international affairs, Dmitry Ryurikov, told a Moscow news conference.

But Ryurikov said Yeltsin was in firm control of Russia, despite signs of dissent about the campaign.