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Chechen war resumes with a vengeance

In the 2{ weeks since Russian President Boris Yeltsin won re-election, in part by halting his war against separatists in Chechnya, the conflict has resumed in full force with no letup in sight.

Russian artillery and warplanes pounded rebel-occupied villages near the town of Shatoi on Saturday, pressing a daily offensive that has left dozens of civilians dead and at least 850 others homeless across the mountainous southern republic.

Separatist rebels have been striking back with fatal ambushes against Russian officers and their Chechen collaborators.

The conflict took several turns for the worse last week. There was an atrocity on each side, a fruitless appeal for peace by visiting Vice President Al Gore and the theatrical return of a wounded separatist commander who claimed responsibility for two bus bombings in Moscow.

This sudden collapse of efforts to end the war has stunned Russians and Chechens, deepening a mood of cynicism about the hawk-turned-peacemaker they re-elected July 3 only to watch him revert to a hawk.

The war, which has claimed about 30,000 lives since December 1994, is so unpopular in Russia that many believed last spring that Yeltsin could not be re-elected.

But he surprised everyone by receiving separatist leader Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev in the Kremlin on May 27 to sign the cease-fire, and by flying to Chechnya the next day to tell his army the war was over.

Hopes for a lasting settlement rose late last month when Yeltsin fired his most hawkish Kremlin advisers and named retired Gen. Alexander Lebed to head his Security Council. Running for president as a critic of the war, Lebed had finished third in the first round of voting June 16.

But after his support helped Yeltsin defeat a Communist rival in the runoff, Lebed adopted the stance that had prompted Yeltsin to invade Chechnya in the first place _ that Moscow must prevent the Muslim-dominated republic from seceding.

The government's new offensive began July 9 after Lebed, fresh from consultations with Yeltsin, met with the top Russian commander in Chechnya.

"You resumed the bloody Chechen war the day after the official voting results were announced," human rights activist Sergei Kovalev told Yeltsin in an open letter. "It was the war you promised to end that ensured your victory in the election. I knew . . . your promises were a lie. But the country believed you."

Even if the Kremlin is determined to fight on, it is unlikely to win a military victory.

The guerrillas _ estimated by the government to number 4,000 _ move freely at night, even in the capital, Grozny. Yeltsin has done little to isolate the separatists by winning or buying Chechen hearts and minds. Despite his campaign promise to revive Chechnya from its ruins, little money has arrived.