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Chechen leader 'will quit' for sovereignty deal

The Chechen separatist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was quoted yesterday as saying he would be willing to sacrifice his political career and step down if in return Moscow would recognise the Caucasian region's sovereignty.

Arkady Volsky, the first Russian official to hold direct talks with General Dudayev since war broke out six months ago, said he had received this offer when he visited the rebel leader in his mountain stronghold on Sunday night. Until Mr Volsky's trip, Moscow had dismissed General Dudayev as a criminal and refused to talk to him. "I will step down with my cabinet if the sovereignty of Chechnya is recognised," Mr Volsky quoted Gen Dudayev as saying.

Mr Volsky, a centrist politician in Moscow, suggested Gen Dudayev either go into exile abroad or accept a "zero option" under which Kremlin-appointed puppet leaders in Chechnya would resign if he did. Then there could be free elections in the region. Tass said Gen Dudayev had refused to leave his homeland but "did not exclude the possibility of the zero option".

The road to peace will still be difficult, however, as Russia interprets the word "sovereignty" as meaning autonomy within the federation, while Gen Dudayev has up to now meant full independence by the word.

The Chechens, who since December have resisted the Russian army's attempt to crush their independence drive, are in a stronger position following a raid by their fighters on the southern Russian town of Budennovsk last month. This forced Moscow to call a truce and come to peace talks in Grozny.

In Moscow, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, has emerged as the main beneficiary of the Budennovsk affair. He is being tipped as a likely successor to President Boris Yeltsin if elections go ahead as scheduled next year.

While Mr Yeltsin was out of the country, Mr Chernomyrdin overruled Kremlin hawks whose attempt to use force to free hostages held in Budennovsk hospital was a blood-soaked failure. He negotiated the safe passage of the raiders back to Chechnya, probably saving lives.

The State Duma said it had no confidence in the government after the Budennovsk crisis, but the target of the deputies' ire was not so much Mr Chernomyrdin as the hardline security, defence and interior ministers who launched the Chechnya war. After Mr Yeltsin sacrificed the interior and nationalities ministers and the head of the security service on Friday, parliament decided next day that the rest of the Chernomyrdin team could stay. The deputies would have liked the head of the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, as well but he is close to Mr Yeltsin and so survives.

With Mr Chernomyrdin in the ascendant, peace has a chance in Chechnya. But though he may be a dove, he made clear yesterday he would not be a push-over. If the Chechens used the truce to regroup their forces, then "it will be the worse for them. They must realise there will be no second negotiations."