Chechens make peace as Moscow halts bombing

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The Independent Online
Russian and Chechen military commanders agreed yesterday - at their first top-level meeting - to a partial ceasefire, scaling down a war that has claimed thousands of lives and destroyed Grozny, once home to 400,000 people. Although there have been "ceasefires'' before, this one has the stamp of authority.

After four hours of talks at the airfield at Sleptsovsk, in neighbouring Ingushetia, the Russians agreed to stop bombing villages south of the Chechen capital. Both sides agreed to stop using heavy weapons and exchange prisoners and bodies.

Although some Chechens will continue the struggle, the agreement promises a reduction in the fighting and an end to the colossal destruction by the Russians. Boris Agapov, the Vice-President of Ingushetia, who chaired the meeting, said it was only a prelude to more serious talks tomorrow.

But, by agreeing to meet the Chechen guerrilla leader, Aslan Maskhadov, the Russian commander, Colonel-General Anatoly Kulikov, made a big concession. Mr Agapov said that the two commanders even drank a "customary military toast" to the dead on both sides.

Mr Maskhadov has been the effective commander of the Chechens, and led fighters out of the presidential palace after Russian bombardment made it impossible to defend.

General Kulikov said he had already ordered Russian units in Grozny to stop using tanks and artillery and sources in the city said they had been ordered to dig in and not respond to attacks. "The most important thing is that negotiations have begun," said General Kulikov. "The question of withdrawal from Grozny is a matter for future negotiations but Russian forces have started to leave."

Yesterday, the Russian army was reported to be handing over responsibility to Interior Ministry troops commanded by General Kulikov. Officially, Moscow calls the fighting in Chechyna a police operation to "disarm bandits". After two months of mass destruction the Russians have taken Grozny. But they face a long campaign to flush out guerrillas in the village.

The Chechens need a breathing space. Mr Maskhadov said this week he was pulling his men out of Grozny to regroup for a summer war in the mountains. But, he admitted he was outnumbered in men and firepower by the Russians.

The main threat to the ceasefire will come from some Chechen guerrillas who will go on fighting regardless. "We're not with Maskhadov, we don't take orders, we're our own defence force," Ali, the leader of one 50-strong Chechen armed group said, in a western Chechen village.

But other villages in the Caucasus mountains do not want a guerrilla war. Now that the Russians control Grozny and its important oil installations, they may be in no hurry to pursue the last remnants of resistance in remote mountain valleys. The town of Gudermes, east of Grozny, is expected to become the next centre of resistance. Russian sources said about 600 Chechen fighters were concentrating in the area. About 5,500 were reported on the eastern border with Dagestan, and 6,000 on the western, with Ingushetia.

But against the overwhelming Russian superiority in armour, they will not be able to hold their ground on the plain for long, and groups wishing to fight on are expected to congregate in the high mountain pass at Kharami, on the border with Dagestan.

Although sporadic exchanges of gunfire continued in Grozny yesterday, the battle has largely shifted to the outlying villages. The city is largely destroyed, especially buildings on the east bank of the Sunzha river, which the Chechen rebels held for a long time, and are believed to be beyond repair.

On Saturday, Russia's head of territorial adminstration, Nikolai Semyonov, and minister for Emergency Situations, Sergei Sholgu, met to discuss rebuilding Grozny in Mozdok, the main Russian headquarters for the Chechnya operation. A shortage of drinking water was the most pressing problem, but they also said they were shocked by the booby-trapping of dead bodies and lack of care for the wounded.

Estimates of the casualties in the conflict vary. Yesterday the Chechen staff reported that the rebel forces had lost about 3,550 fighters - 550 dead and 3,000 wounded. Last week, the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Colonel-General Mikhail Kolesnikov, reported killing or wounding 6,700 Chechen rebels, and taking 471 prisoners. The Russians admit to more than 1,000 dead, but local sources estimate the losses may be much higher.

In Moscow, the Deputy Defence Minister, General Boris Gromov, a consistent opponent of Russia's campaign in Chechnya, has been moved to a new appointment as a "military expert" - special adviser - in the Foreign Ministry.

It is not clear whether this is a sideways move or a genuine attempt to bring Defence and Foreign Ministry policies on Chechnya - which have diverged - into line in the face of strong external criticism.