Chechen rebels pull out as war hots up

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The Independent Online
Chechen rebels were last night withdrawing from Gudermes, the republic's second town, after some of the worst fighting for months. The streets were littered with bodies, unburied because of heavy shelling.

A week after 600 rebels stormed into the area, a rebel commander, Alsan Maskadov, announced that large numbers of Chechen fighters were pulling out to avoid further casualties among warring sides and among citizens. Several hundred Chechen soldiers were later seen leaving in convoy.

The Russian military had sealed off the town, which they shelled, and threatened to fire on reporters, so reports of the mayhem have been patchy. But evidence is mounting that it was one of the bloodier battles in the year-long war. According to the mayor of Gudermes, Ram-zan Vatsayev, 100 civilians died in the fighting, in which Russian helicopters fired on rebels and citizens. The rebels seized much of the town as part of the effort to stop last week's elections in the breakaway republic. The Russians have said they only used helicopters to attack identifiable rebel positions.

Mr Vatsayev also told the Interfax news agency that Russian soldiers had been tossing grenades into places where some of the town's 60,000 people had been taking shelter. If true, the war's already high number of civilian victims, including the untold thousands who died in the bombardment of Grozny, will swell further.

While the situation in Gudermes appeared to be easing, tensions were high elsewhere in the breakaway republic - particularly in Ackhnoi Martan, 30 miles from Grozny, where an official said 300 rebels had entered the town, causing a stand-off with the police. Russian troops had reportedly gathered there, but had not intervened.

Such flare-ups in Chechnya pose another headache for the Kremlin, which is already immersed in the difficult task of establishing a campaign strategy for the presidential race in June, in a country where the Communists are now unarguably the most popular party.

Vyacheslav Mikhailov, Russia's chief negotiator in peace talks, said yesterday that the Yeltsin administration and the Chechen government will soon set up a commission to develop a power-sharing treaty. But the separatists seem likely to regard this as worthless, partly because the Chechen government is a Moscow puppet, set up by rigged elections, and partly because the agreement would fall short of independence.