Chechens hint at tougher line Chechens harden freedom line

HELEN WOMACK

Moscow

Having agreed on a military disengagement, Russian and Chechen representatives will meet in Grozny today to explore ideas for a lasting political settlement in the war-ravaged Caucasian region. Russian commentators said a change at the top of the Chechen negotiating team, ordered by Dzhokhar Dudayev, suggested the Muslim rebels had hardened their position and would accept nothing but full independence.

General Dudayev, who at first appeared to reject Sunday's military accord, was yesterday reported to have given it his blessing and ordered his fighters to stop shooting at Russian troops. His spokesman, Movladi Udugov, said that at a meeting of Chechnya's Defence Committee in the mountains on Tuesday night, General Dudayev had finally "approved the document in general and accepted it for execution". It was a mystery, therefore, why the Chechen leader had dismissed his chief negotiator, Usman Imayev, and promoted a junior member of Grozny's team, the former education minister, Khozhakhmed Yarikhanov.

Russia's chief negotiator, Vyacheslav Mikhailov, described Mr Imayev, the former public prosecutor in Chechnya, as a "sober-minded politician who was inclined to compromise". The implication was that Mr Yarikhanov would be tougher to deal with. But the Chechens said the switch would make no difference at the coming talks. "Aides of Mr Imayev said privately that to avoid a split among his guerrillas, General Dudayev needed a scapegoat who could be blamed for concessions made to the Russians in the military agreement. The deal calls for Chechen guerrillas to disarm at the same time as most of Russia's soldiers withdraw. The Chechens will be allowed to keep a small quantity of weapons for self-defence.

Clashes have continued since the document was signed, but yesterday the first prisoners were swapped in accordance with the agreement. Today's talks will bring together low-level Russian and Chechen experts who will examine options for a political settlement. If progress is achieved, the heavyweight negotiators will join in.

But progress is likely to be slow, as Russia says it cannot afford to set a precedent by freeing one of its regions while the Chechens, who made a unilateral declaration of independence back in 1991, have suffered heavy losses in eight months of war for their cause.

The unpopular war has also proved expensive for Moscow. The Defence Ministry announced yesterday it was short of cash to pay army wages.

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