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Lebed called in to Chechen crisis

President Boris Yeltsin, desperately seeking a solution to the problem of Chechnya, yesterday appointed his new national security adviser, Alexander Lebed, to represent him in the Caucasian region.

General Lebed, who replaces Oleg Lobov as presidential envoy, is regarded by many Russians as a knight in shining armour, untainted by any involvement in the 20-month war, and the man most likely to be able to work a miracle in Chechnya. But much will depend on how much freedom the Kremlin leader gives him to try new initiatives. Early indications were not promising as Mr Yeltsin spoke in terms of the same carrot-and-stick approach to the Chechen rebels which has proved futile so far.

"Terrorist rage will be decisively put down," he declared as Muslim separatists rampaged through Grozny. "There is no way to settle the conflicts in Chechnya other than the peace negotiations I began on 27 May."

He was referring to talks he held with separatist leaders before the presidential elections, when he needed peace to win votes. The Chechens say he reneged on his promises as soon as he was back in the Kremlin by allowing air raids on their villages and that was why they spoilt celebrations to mark his second term by assaulting Grozny.

Fighting was still fierce in the Chechen capital yesterday, although the rebels were reported to be retreating. "The rebel units are being dislodged from the city's government compound," said Radio Russia reporter Vladimir Trushkovsky.

In parliament yesterday the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, expressed condolences to the families of the victims. "A completely military solution is a dead end," he said, indicating a shift in Moscow's thinking from December 1994, when it intervened in the region, assuming it would be easy to force Chechnya back into the federal fold.

But what would represent anew approach from Russia would be a willingness to allow the Chechens a referendum on independence. Gen Lebed has promised to visit the region soon, a trip that might bring fresh initiatives.