MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin, catapulted into the Kremlin by Boris Yeltsin's shock resignation, said he had no intention of acting hastily to end Russia's military campaign in Chechnya after making a flying visit to the region.

Putin made a vigorous start as Russia's acting president with the trip to the breakaway region on Saturday to wish his troops a happy new year.

"I think that everything we have done so far has been justified," Putin said on his return to Moscow from Chechnya, in remarks broadcast by Russian NTV and monitored by the BBC in London.

Three months into their campaign to crush Islamic militants, Russian troops have taken control of most of Chechen territory except Grozny and the rebels' mountain hideouts in the south.

"We have no intention to liberate anything by acting hastily," he said in other remarks carried by Russian radio station Echo Moskvy.

"We plan to act in the best possible way, which means as few losses as possible among our servicemen and no losses among the civilian population."

Putin, a tough-talking former spy, has won a cordial endorsement from U.S. President Bill Clinton and other Western leaders for stressing Moscow's commitment to democratic values.

The 47-year-old Putin, who retains his post as prime minister, is keen to show he is firmly in control ahead of an expected March 26 presidential election.

"There will be no power vacuum, even for a moment. There has been no vacuum, nor will there be one," he told his countrymen in a New Year's Eve address before flying to Chechnya.

"I want to warn that any attempt to exceed the limits of the law and Russia's constitution will be decisively crushed.

"Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the mass media, the right to private property—all these basic principles of a civilised society will be reliably protected by the state," Putin said.

Heartened by these words, Clinton told Putin in a 10-minute telephone conversation on Saturday that U.S.-Russia relations under Putin's leadership were "off to a good start."

"(Putin) reaffirmed his commitment to the core value of democracy," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters.

However, the two men also touched on areas like Chechnya where they disagree. Clinton and other Western leaders have repeatedly criticised Russia's military campaign against Chechen rebels as excessively brutal and counterproductive.

Putin says top priority is Russian unity

After flying to Chechnya in the early hours of New Year's Day, Putin awarded hunting knives to Russian troops.

"I want you to know that Russia highly appreciates what you are doing," he said in remarks to officers and soldiers broadcast live on television at around 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Saturday from Gudermes, east of the regional capital Grozny.

"This is not just about restoring the honour and dignity of Russia," he said, his wife at his side. "It is rather more important than that. It is about putting an end to the break up of the Russian Federation. That is the main task."

Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov told Reuters Television in an interview filmed at a secret location near Grozny shortly before Yeltsin's resignation that Russia would pay dearly for its military campaign.

"A full-scale partisan war has just begun," said Maskhadov, seen in Moscow as a weak man with no control over the militants.

Putin's seemingly unassailable opinion poll ratings could slip ahead of the election if losses mount in Chechnya and Russian forces get bogged down, as Maskhadov predicted.

Most Russians more concerned with millennium celebrations

Putin had been expected to meet leaders of the newly elected State Duma lower house of parliament on Sunday but Russian news agencies said the talks had been put off because most politicians were still out of Moscow celebrating the New Year.

Ordinary Russians were certainly more concerned with partying than with politics on the first weekend of the new millennium. Hundreds of thousands of Muscovites turned out on the streets of the capital on Friday night to see in the new year.

Most people quizzed by Reuters said they thought Yeltsin, long dogged by ill health, had done the right thing by quitting.

But the man who has dominated Russian politics for the past decade has not completely left public life. Next Wednesday he makes a long-planned trip to the Holy Land to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas at Christ's birthplace in Bethlehem.

His spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin told Russia's TV Six channel on Saturday that Yeltsin and Patriarch Alexiy II, head of Russia's Orthodox Church, would attend the festivities as planned, despite the president's resignation.

Yakushkin said Putin would likely stay in Moscow, contrary to earlier reports that said he might also go to Bethlehem.