Chechens defy Moscow ultimatum

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Chechen rebels defied an ultimatum from Moscow to lay down their weapons yesterday and reinforced their positions in Grozny despite fresh Russian attacks on the city centre. Artillery shells and rocket-propelled grenades crashed in front of Grozn y's presidential palace after a morning lull in fighting that allowed several hundred Chechen civilians to flee the capital with bags and bedding.

Oleg Lobov, the secretary of Russia's powerful Security Council, a body resembling the old Soviet Politburo, warned Chechnya's leaders that Russia would crush them if their forces ignored a 48-hour deadline to give up their weapons by tomorrow morning. He said Moscow had received no indication that the Chechens were willing to accept the ultimatum in return for an amnesty.

Russia's human-rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, criticised the Kremlin's tactics on the grounds that they amounted to no more than an offer to end the war entirely on Russian terms. Mr Kovalyov, who has turned into the most prominent opponent of thewar, was rebuffed by President Boris Yeltsin last week when he called for a ceasefire without conditions.

Mr Yeltsin's democratic reputation is disintegrating at home and abroad as a result of the Chechen war, but he shows no sign of relaxing his drive to remove the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and restore Russian rule over Chechnya. In what appeared anattempt to soften his newly hardline image, Mr Yeltsin appointed the speakers of the two chambers of parliament, Ivan Rybkin and Vladimir Shumeiko, to be full voting members of the Security Council.

Neither man has been an outspoken critic of the war, but Mr Rybkin has emphasised the need for the fighting to stop. Their appointments may at least dilute the influence of the military and security services in what is Russia's most important decision-taking body in the crisis.

The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, reconvenes today after the New Year and Russian Christmas break for a session expected to see an attempt to pass a vote of no confidence in the government. Among members seeking the government's dismissal isBoris Fyodorov, a leading reformist who initially supported the crackdown in Chechnya but now accuses the authorities of incompetence. With the Duma divided into various liberal, centrist, Communist and nationalist factions, it is unclear whether a no-confidence motion will succeed. But two other proposals may attract broad support.

The first is a bill that would ban the Russian army from going into combat in conflicts such as that in Chechnya unless a state of emergency was first declared. The second proposal is an amendment to the constitution to expand parliament's powers over the government so that Chechnya-style operations would be illegal.

The proposals reflect the parliament's anger and embarrassment at having been forced to sit on the sidelines while Mr Yeltsin, the armed forces and the security services launched their Chechen adventure. The parliament's determination to take action has grown as opinion polls have shown that a majority of Russians oppose the war.