Lebed wins over the Chechens

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For all his triumphant words, Alexander Lebed, Russia's security chief, now faces a difficult task if he is to persuade his opponents in Russia and in Chechnya to accept the high-speed peace deal which he signed with the rebel leadership in the early hours yesterday.

Within minutes of concluding the agreement, to cries of "Lebed for President" from the Chechen delegation, the general declared the war over, ending a nightmare that has claimed more than 35,000 lives, created tens of thousands of refugees, destroyed a city and humiliated Russia's once mighty army.

"The war has ended. We fought more than enough," he said after putting his name to a four-point agreement in principle which defers a decision on the issue at the heart of the conflict - Chechnya's political status - until 31 December 2001.

Even his enemies are likely to concede that the deal, struck after an eight-hour meeting with the rebel chief of staff in a town on the Chechen- Dagestan border, was a personal victory for Mr Lebed, who will be widely seen as a hero among a war-weary Russian public. Only three weeks after President Boris Yeltsin gave him special powers as his envoy to the war zone, he has a military truce and has laid the foundation stone for a political agreement.

But, although it is the best chance for peace since the 20-month war began, its future is far from secure. The agreement includes the creation of a Russian-Chechen commission to monitor total troop withdrawal, fight crime, draw up proposals on Grozny's financial relationship with Moscow and devise an economic recovery plan. But specifics appear to be lacking - particularly over who will run the republic for the next few years. Uncertainty hangs over what role, if any, will be given to the Moscow- backed Chechen government of Doku Zavgayev, which regards the separatists as bitter foes. There is a serious risk that insults could soon turn into a bloody round of score-settling.

Mr Lebed has not helped clarify matters. Before the meeting he said that "maybe a provisional government . . . or provisional administrative council will be put in place". But he would "personally insist" that representatives of all the republic's political movements would play a part. "It is a guarantee of civil war if somebody is left out."

Nor are these the only hurdles. Mr Lebed's triumph will not delight his political rivals in the Kremlin, who regard his power and popularity with alarm. The Communists, who dominate parliament, have been railing against his peace efforts, arguing he is paving the way for Chechnya's secession. And conservative elements in the so-called power ministries regard a settlement as a humiliating capitulation to a bunch of bandits.

Tomorrow the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, chairs a meeting of top officials to discuss the deal. Mr Yeltsin, whose support for his envoy has been half-hearted, is said to have approved the proposals - although by yesterday afternoon, he had given no public sign of approval.

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