MOSCOW — Russian troops killed or drove out the last armed rebels from Chechen lowlands by dropping depth charges into nuclear-proof bunkers at an abandoned Soviet missile base where insurgents took cover, the commander of Russian forces in breakaway Chechnya said Wednesday.
But as vacationing commander Col. Gen. Anatoly S. Kulikov described the military campaign in Chechnya as all but over, his replacement back on the battlefield conceded that Russian troops were forced to retreat after Chechen rebels pounded them with artillery from nearby hills.
The fierce fighting for Bamut, a tiny village in the fertile and best-developed part of Chechnya, has cost both sides heavy casualties and reinforced fears that bloodshed will continue indefinitely in Russia's turbulent southern fringes.
Russia's suppression of Chechen separatism and reports of massacres and brutality by federal forces have damaged this country's image as an emerging democracy and cast a pall over next month's visit by President Clinton.
"Bamut was cleared of fighters yesterday," Kulikov said at a Moscow news conference during what has been described as his annual leave.
"Today, (Chechen President Dzhokar M.) Dudayev has no social or economic grounds for continuing the armed struggle," Kulikov said of the rebels' nearly four-year quest for independence that Moscow moved against militarily on Dec. 11.
He estimated that the battle for Bamut killed 400 Chechen fighters, and he acknowledged 15 Russian fatalities, bringing the official death toll among the federal forces to more than 1,500.
The Russian military casualties are believed to be much higher, however, as the Defense Ministry counts only those victims whose bodies are recovered and identified.
Bamut was the site of a Soviet-era Strategic Rocket Forces base housing missiles that were removed and destroyed as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
But the fortified bunkers that protected the missiles from nuclear attack shielded Dudayev's fighters for weeks before the federal forces could get close enough to fire depth charges into the silos.
Kulikov said the capture of Bamut gave his forces control over 80% of Chechen territory and 90% of its population, allowing the government operation to move from a military to a political front.
But at the Russian military headquarters near Chechnya, Kulikov's stand-in was quoted as saying that Dudayev's supporters had consolidated their positions on high ground overlooking Bamut and had shelled the Russians into retreat.
"Russian troops were later forced to leave the village to avoid casualties," Col. Gen. Mikhail Yegorov told the Interfax news agency in Mozdok, the Russians' military springboard in the neighboring territory of North Ossetia.
In another contradiction of the official line, the quasi-official Itar-Tass news agency reported from Mozdok that its correspondent had seen two Russian warplanes bombing a village in the republic of Ingushetia, which borders the Bamut region but has stayed out of the Chechen war.
Kulikov's first deputy in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Chilindin, categorically denied that there had been air strikes against the Ingush settlement of Arshty, where three women--two sisters and a 68-year-old neighbor--were killed Tuesday.
But Tass quoted Ingush President Ruslan Aushev protesting the fatal incident to the Russian government as a "criminal" act.
"A Tass correspondent in the village saw two combat aircraft deliver missile strikes on the outskirts of Arshty," the agency reported, adding that some of the 4,000 Chechen refugees taking shelter near Arshty were spurred by the attack to flee again.
At his news conference, Kulikov denied that his forces committed atrocities against civilians in the village of Samashky last week, as alleged by Sergei A. Kovalev, President Boris N. Yeltsin's human rights adviser.
While insisting that the military phase of the suppression of Chechen secessionists is drawing to a close, Kulikov said the Kremlin has every intention of maintaining a strong troop presence in Chechnya.
Once pockets of resistance are subdued, Kulikov said, the number of Russian army troops, Interior Ministry forces and police can probably be reduced to fewer than 25,000. He said nearly 60,000 federal troops were engaged in the Chechen operation at its greatest intensity.