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Chechen war on hold for VE Day

President Boris Yeltsin has decided to call a temporary halt to the Russian army's combat operations in Chechnya, to avoid embarrassing Western politicians who are due in Moscow next month for celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, told reporters yesterday that a presidential decree was imminent "imposing a moratorium on military activity in Chechnya for the period of the celebrations".

Despite calls by Russian human rights activists for the West to boycott the anniversary as a Chechnya protest, 50 states, including Britain, are sending leaders to Russia on 8-9 May as a mark of respect. The country suffered the heaviest losses at the hands of the Nazis.

But Nato members, and the United States in particular, have made clear that Chechnya remains a sensitive subject for them and they do not wish to be seen to be endorsing the Russian crackdown. Thus it is important for Mr Yeltsin to sweep the crisis under the carpet, at least for the time being.

It remains to be seen whether he will be able to. True, the Russian army, which in February reduced the city of Grozny to rubble reminiscent of Stalingrad, now controls almost all lowland Chechnya. But as recently as this weekend, Russian troops were still fighting Chechen rebels for control of villages at the gateway to the mountains from which the Muslim fighters have vowed to conduct a guerrilla war.

There is no guarantee that the Chechens will respect Mr Yeltsin's moratorium and clashes could break out while the Western leaders are here.

However the Chechens behave, Moscow is determined to give a good impression. The Russian capital is being spruced up a with vigour not seen since the Soviet Union hosted the Olympic Games in 1980. (Then many Western countries boycotted Moscow over Russia's invasion of Afghanistan.)

Flags and posters are going up, faades are being painted and the concrete is drying on a statue of the Soviet Union's wartime commander, Marshal Zhukov, to be unveiled near Red Square. The workers who at the weekend laid fresh asphalt down Leningradsky Prospekt - the road leading from the airport - wasted their time, however. Late last night a seemingly endless column of tanks and rocket-carriers churned up the highway after a rehearsal for one of two parades scheduled for 9 May.

President Bill Clinton will not see the tanks, as he and other Western leaders have chosen to attend the less overtly militaristic of the parades. But no doubt foreign defence attachs will be making copious notes, as they always used to do at the old Red Square parades of the Soviet era.

n Mr Chernomyrdin said yesterday that he was launching a new political party to contest December's parliamentary elections. Success could give him a springboard to try for the presidency next year. The Prime Minister is popular because, unlike other politicians around Mr Yeltsin, he has distanced himself from the Chechen war.