MOSCOW, Dec. 11 -- Russian troops moved into the separatist Chechen republic early Sunday following a Kremlin decree to restore order in the rebel province that has declared itself independent of Russia. The Russian government press office said the troop and tank columns sent by Moscow crossed the Chechen border without resistance and headed toward the Chechen capital Grozny, where anti-Russian sentiment runs high but which was reported to be calm. The troop convoy, with helicopters overhead, was carrying out a decree handed down by President Boris Yeltsin two days earlier to restore law and order in the breakaway Chechen republic. Russian forces prepared for Sunday's invasion by taking steps Saturday to seal the Chechen borders and restrict air space in an apparent move to prevent the fiercely anti-Moscow Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev from getting outside support for his separatist cause. Dudayev has called on fellow Muslims and other ethnic groups in the neighboring Caucasus to help resist the Moscow's rule in the region, where Russian-Chechen animosity dates back to the 19th century the Caucasus war, which Dudayev says Russia is reigniting. Three separate columns of Russian troops entered the Chechen republic in a move toward Grozny, Dudayev's stronghold against Russian rule, Russian news agencies reported. Troop movements began just hours after Dudayev told the Russian Itar- Tass news agency Saturday that he was willing to sit down at the negotiating table to resolve the conflict. Settlement talks had been slated for Monday in Ingushetia, a Russian province adjacent to Chechnya.
But at dawn Sunday Russian tanks began rolling toward a showdown with Chechen separatist forces. Russian troops had been massing near the Chechen border for weeks as the protracted conflict built to a climax with threatening Kremlin ultimatums and tough language from Moscow. This proved anti-climactic as Moscow backed down after half-hearted military moves on land and in the air -- at first denied but later admitted by Moscow -- which failed to do anything except perhaps bolster Dudayev's support. But as soon as Moscow won the release last week of 21 Russian soldiers captured in the fighting in late November, Moscow took up its hard line again Friday with Yeltsin's decree. Yeltsin, the commander in chief, was hospitalized over the weekend for minor surgery, but the government was already taking steps to carry out his decree to disarm self-styled militias, restore order and bring the rebel region back into the Russian Federation constitutional fold. Russian action has come one year after the country voted in a new post-Soviet constitution, but the Russian move to rein in the Chechen rebels comes a full three years after Dudayev declared the Chechen republic independent. During those three years, Moscow virtually ignored Dudayev and his de facto Chechen state, but in late summer Moscow lost patience with Dudayev and threw its weight behind the anti-Dudayev forces in northern Chechnya. Opinion in Moscow has been split and confused over what to do about the Chechen rebellion. Moscow wants to avoid a war on Russian territory but also feels it cannot let the Chechens break way with impunity lest other ethnic groups follow the example. But a full-scale military action by Russia, even on its own territory, may serve to consolidate many of the various competing bands of Chechen armed formations into a solid flank fighting for Chechen independence against troops sent by Moscow.