A breathing space in Chechnya

The battles may be over - but will the ceasefire last? Helen Womack reports
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Moscow - Russian and Chechen commanders were reported to have agreed to a ceasefire yesterday, the first sign that the bloody battles over Grozny might be coming to a close - for now.

After eight days of fighting in the Chechen capital, Russian media said that a ceasefire would come into effect at noon today local time. But it was not clear whether whether the ceasefire was intended to be permanent or merely a temporary measure to allow the evacuation of civilians and wounded. If it holds, it will be a signal victory for Alexander Lebed, President Boris Yeltsin's security chief and envoy to Chechnya.

The news came after Russia's military commander in Chechnya, General Konstantin Pulikovsky, held talks with the rebel chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov. The meeting began in the early evening in the village of Novye Atagi, 15 miles south of the regional capital. "The issue of a ceasefire and, possibly, the mechanism for a withdrawal of units and subunits from the confrontation line are expected to be discussed," said the Interfax news agency before the meeting began.

The tentative peace process was set in motion by General Lebed, who on Sunday made a lightning visit to the war zone to meet Mr Maskhadov and returned to Moscow on Monday saying he was optimistic a ceasefire could soon be arranged. However, there was no reaction from the Kremlin yesterday to his criticism of the Russian government's policy in the Caucasus, and the demands he made for sweeping powers to manage the crisis himself.

In all probability, his sharp comments, made at a press conference, will have set off bitter infighting in the corridors of power. In particular, General Lebed will not have endeared himself to the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, a rival even before the general accused the commission Mr Chernomyrdin heads of failing dismally in its handling of Chechnya.

A small change occurred in the Kremlin yesterday with the departure of President Yeltsin's press spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, a young journalist who, at his own request, was returning to the ORT state television channel where he used to work. Lately the television has seemed almost as restricted as in Soviet times although one anchorwoman, Arina Sharapova, has let it be known by small comments that the journalists are disgusted by the war in Chechnya. It was probably not accidental that, the other night, the news was followed by a popular Caucasian cartoon about a tiny ant outwitting a bullying elephant.

Certainly the Chechen rebels, who infiltrated Grozny last week with the express intention of spoiling President Yeltsin's inauguration celebrations, have run rings round the far larger and much better-equipped Russian army.

Yesterday mortar shells were crashing over Grozny as the federal forces tried to retake key buildings in the city centre still held by the separatists.

Rebel information chief Movladi Udugov, who has been so skilled at presenting Chechnya's case that General Lebed himself praised him while saying the Russian spokesmen should go and "fish and pick raspberries at their dachas", claimed yesterday that the separatists controlled 75 to 80 per cent of Grozny. Eyewitnesses said rebels seemed to roam the streets at will while most of the Russian soldiers they saw were dead ones. The toll among servicemen is now officially 221 killed and 766 wounded.

Waves of refugees were trying to flee Grozny. The pro-Moscow Chechen government complained that Russian forces were firing on civilians and appealed to the army to open a corridor to let them out of the burning city. "Tens of thousands of people are trapped... without food supplies and with a catastrophic lack of medicine," it said. The army apparently dislikes the idea of a corridor because it fears rebels could escape by melting into the crowd of refugees.

The Russian migration service said it had received 10 billion roubles (pounds 1.3m) to cope with the new homeless. The European Commission in Brussels approved a new aid package for Chechnya, bringing the total assistance since the outbreak of war 20 months ago to nearly pounds 29m. More than 30,000 people have died in the fighting and survivors are desperate for food and medical aid.

n Moscow (AP) - A correspondent for Russia's largest television station was killed as he and his family tried to leave the Chechen capital during the rebel siege last weekend.

Ramzan Khadzhiyev, who covered the North Caucasus for the television station ORT, was shot in the head twice as he was driving out of Grozny with his wife and four-year-old son. Independent NTV television aired a brief interview with a passenger in the car who said it was Russian forces who opened fire on the vehicle.

The pro-government ORT suggested the rebels were behind the slaying, and Khadzhiyev, an ethnic Chechen, had received many threats from the rebels, who accused him of a pro-Moscow bias in his reporting and of betraying his people. He was the 19th journalist to die in the 20-month-old conflict.

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