Russia's acting President, Vladimir Putin, has paid an unexpected has paid an unexpected visit to Chechnya to award medals to soldiers. Mr Putin congratulated soldiers on the continuing offensive and presented them with hunting knives. He told Russian troops in Gudermes, a city east of the Chechen capital Grozny, that the conflict was not simply about restoring honour and dignity to Russia, but was a means to prevent Russia fragmenting even further. Grozny was bombarded again during the New Year, it was one of the heaviest attacks to date in the four-month-old offensive.

It has been announced that the former Russian president Boris Yeltsin will travel to the Holy Land next week without Mr Putin. Officials had suggested yesterday that Mr Putin might also attend Orthodox Christmas celebrations in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem on January 6 and January 7.