Besieged city breathes sigh of relief

Carlotta Gall finds calm after the storm in Grozny
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A silent stillness reigned in Grozny yesterday morning, hours after the deadline for the threatened Russian assault expired. The road leading into the city from the east, for the past two days crammed with refugees, was empty.

A few residents were out, fetching water in buckets from hand pumps, keeping close to the buildings.

A burst of automatic gunfire crackled, but Russian Interior Ministry troops, trapped at their post on a bridge, were not concerned. "There is some light shooting like that, but it's nothing," said one officer.

Several hundred yards away, Chechen fighters said the same. "There was mortar fire here at three or four o'clock in the night," one fighter said, pointing out damaged houses. "But since the morning it has been quiet. They have not bombed or shelled. There is just the odd shooting in the centre," he said. He was standing beside a freshly dug trench and a bunker hidden by branches, outside a private house where a group of fighters were living, along with two Russian builders they had caught in town.

The calm in the city was in stark contrast to the panicky exodus of refugees under gun- and shell-fire only the day before. The calm seemed to be due to the former general, Alexander Lebed, who flew in from Moscow announcing that he was calling off the ultimatum that gave civilians 48 hours to leave the city before Russian forces launched an attack to retake it.

Konstantin Pulikovsky, acting commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, and responsible for the ultimatum, was removed from his post with an order signed yesterday, Mr Lebed's press secretary said.

Mr Lebed met the Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, on Wednesday evening in the village of Novy Atagi, south of Grozny. The two men sat face-to-face over a table spread with a map of Chechnya. Mr Lebed appeared at ease and in his shirtsleeves. "There will be no more ultimatums," he said, adding that General Pulikovsky had been joking.

Asked if the bombardment of Grozny would stop, he said: "I'm going to Grozny to ensure that it remains quiet."

"We remembered that we both served in one army," added the former general and commander of the 14th army, smiling at Mr Maskhadov, who is a former colonel in the Soviet Army.

Mr Maskhadov said: "We many times believed in peace talks. Now I want to take the word of an officer, that yes is yes, and no is no," he said. Asked later if he thought Mr Lebed had the power to bring peace, he said: "He gave his word."

He was reported to have gone on to meet General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, now back from holiday and commanding troops in Chechnya once more.

Yesterday morning Mr Lebed was back in rebel-held Novy Atagi, sitting with Mr Maskadov, hammering out a deal on how to separate the two fighting forces, how to organise a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Grozny, and how to prevent further clashes by creating joint command posts.

Alexander Varkhatov, Mr Lebed's press spokesman, said that the issues of Chechen independence and a full withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya had been put aside for the moment.

Russian troops outside Grozny were delighted at the progress. "It is good if it is quiet, then we can go home," said Lieutenant-Colonel Leonid Selyutin. "It all depends on Lebed and whether the President [Boris Yeltsin] backs him."

The Chechen fighters gave Mr Lebed a jubilant thumbs-up. "He is a military man," said one. "He has seen it all, he has fought in wars and seen blood being spilled. I think he is a serious man and keeps his word. But if they break this agreement we will give them a lesson they will never forget."