Moscow offers Chechens 48-hour ceasefire

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The Independent Online
After a day of fierce fighting that brought Russian troops in Chechnya to within a few yards of their final objective - the presidential palace in Grozny - the government in Moscow last night declared a unilateral 48-hour ceasefire. The temporary truce announced by the Itar-Tass news agency and Interfax added further confusion to Russia's already baffling military strategy. In a campaign that has cost thousands of lives, the Russians have taken a month to advance just a few miles.

President Boris Yeltsin has previously promised twice to halt air strikes against civilian targets, but bombardments continued all the same.

"The necessary orders have been given by the government of the Russian Federation to the command of the federal forces to cease fire during this period and also to provide for the provision of the orderly realisation of the proposals," the government statement said.

The statement, issued after midnight without Mr Yeltsin's signature but on his behalf, said that all rebel fighters who laid down their weapons would be free under amnesty and allowed to go home safely.

Earlier yesterday Moscow's human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, said that the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, backed his plan for a two-day ceasefire, allowing Russian troops to bury their dead and withdraw the wounded from the Chechen capital. Mr Kovalyov said he was heading to Grozny, where Russian troops were engaged in street fighting with separatist rebels, to negotiate the truce with the Chechen leaders.

At six am yesterday the Kremlin issued an ultimatum threatening to impose a state of emergency in Chechnya if all armed groups, including those loyal to the rebellious President, Dzhokhar Dudayev, were not disbanded and all prisoners not freed within 48 hours. Authorities in the Chechen capital of Grozny promptly rejected the demand.

With a final, and most likely bloody, climax apparently at hand, three planes attacked Mr Dudayev's presidential palace and airport in Grozny, while an evacuation of women and children got under way from a city scarred by fierce fighting over the weekend. Moscow denied any role in the air attack, though it was unclear how a rag-tag band of mostly peasant fighters opposed to Mr Dudayev had managed to obtain an air force.

Adding to an escalating drum-roll of menace from Moscow was the release by Tass of an "appeal" for immediate action from the heads of southern Russian regions adjoining Chechnya. Similar "appeals" - invariably scripted by Moscow - were used to justify Soviet interventions in Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia and other Cold War zones of confrontation.

Chechnya, which not only commands Russia's southern flank but also straddles a crucial oil pipeline form the Caspian to Black Sea, declared its effective independence from Russia at the end of 1991. Its secession pierced the euphoria that followed Mr Yeltsin's triumph over the the hardline communist putsch of August that year. Mr Yeltsin responded by declaring a state of emergency but ordered troops back rather than risk what was widely seen at the time as dangerous military quagmire inside Russia's ownborders. The risks still remain great. Chechens, whom Stalin deported in cattle cars to Central Asia, are probably the most bellicose and fiercely independent of all the ethnic groups that have been granted a degree of autonomy but are still considered subjects of Russia. Many ordinary Russians have an almost pathological fear of Chechens, on whom they blame much of their country's organised crime.

Yesterday's ultimatum follows the repeated failure of attempts by the Kremlin to dislodge Mr Dudayev.