Chechen peace plan on the brink

Nearly a fortnight after it was presented to an expectant outside world, Boris Yeltsin's much-vaunted and long- delayed plan to bring peace to Chechnya is showing increasing symptoms of being destined to die in its infancy.

Fears are growing among Mr Yeltsin's liberal supporters that hardliners in the Russian military are ignoring his peace initiative altogether, and are pushing on with the war in the belief that they can win it.

These concerns were fuelled yesterday by a burst of belligerent rhetoric from the commander of the Russian Interior Ministry troops, General Anatoly Shkirko, who declared that Dzhokhar Dudayev's Chechen fighters must either give up their weapons or be "smashed". The matter could not be settled "half way", he told Interfax news agency.

The general made clear that attempts to crush the rebels would come under the category of "special operations", which the president has decided to continue, despite calling a halt to large-scale military action when he unveiled his peace initiative on 31 March.

"Special operations", however, appears to be a catch-all phrase which the Russian military is using to justify a range of activities. In the last 11 days, there has been little sign of the "peace and tranquillity" which Mr Yeltsin promised, but plenty of bloodshed.

At least 15 villages have come under air, artillery or infantry attack. According to Chechen rebel supporters, 10 people died when a bomb exploded underneath a dais where the rebel commander, Aslan Maskhadov, was due to speak. More than 100 Russian federal troops, and an unknown number of Chechens, have died.

One village, Shalazhi, was bombed on the day after its elders signed a peace accord with the Russians and the Moscow-backed Chechen government - although this was denied by the commander of the Russian Air Force, Pyotr Deinekin. He made the astonishing claim that the bombs were not the work of his jets, but of "provocateurs" who had placed "special depth charges" in the village.

The continuation of hostilities, and the failure of the Russian authorities to provide any reliable information about its activities in Chechnya, is feeding pessimism that Russia has seen the last of the 16-month conflict in which at least 30,000 have died. Yesterday the Russian newspaper Segodnya declared that Mr Yeltsin's initiative was already "on the skids".

This diagnosis coincided with a warning from the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Boris Nemstov, one of the country's best-known liberals, that the hawks around Mr Yeltsin, both in the military and within the Kremlin, could be propelling him to electoral defeat.

"The part of Yeltsin's entourage which toys with illusions about the possibility of victory not only leaves no chance for Yeltsin to implement his peace plan but also makes his defeat in the coming election possible," he said.

The only glimmer of hope is that General Dudayev appears to be willing to accept Mr Yeltsin's offer of mediated talks, despite his preference for direct negotiations with the president himself. Striking an unusually conciliatory note, he described Mr Yeltsin as "the least culpable" of senior Russian officials, and blamed "red-brown" forces in his administration for undermining his policy.

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