Truce under threat as guns roar in Chechnya

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The Independent Online
Russian and Chechen forces yesterday exchanged rocket and artillery fire, violating the partial ceasefire covering heavy weapons agreed on Monday.

The Russian artillery fire, rumbling across the destroyed city of Grozny, and the Chechen rocket attacks on Russian armour near Goity, 20km from the Chechen capital, were clearly produced by heavy weapons. The violation threatens further talks scheduled for today on extending the ceasefire.

The Russians said not all Chechens would comply with the ceasefire and it is uncertain to what extent the Russian troops are permitted to reply to any such violations.

The Vice-President of Ingushetia, Boris Agapov, who mediated at the talks on Monday, confirmed the agreement covered aviation, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and mortars. The ceasefire favours the Chechens, who have fewer heavy weapons, but have shown themselves to be more skilled in infantry tactics.

The commander of Russia's Interior Ministry troops, Colonel-General Anatoly Kulikov and Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel chief-of-staff, had agreed the ceasefire should take immediate effect. But yesterday Russian sources admitted artillery had continued to fire on Chechen rebel positions in southern Grozny and that reconnaissance planes had continued to operate over the city and surrounding villages.

The Interior Ministry, responsible for internal operations of this type, said artillery had provided fire support, hitting targets in Grozny, and Alkhan Kala and Argun, just outside the city. In the previous 24 hours six Russian soldiers had been killed and 25 wounded and in "special operations" one Chechen fighter had been killed and 15 captured.

Sergei Stepashin, head of Russia's counter-intelligence service, admitted that the accord was "unlikely to lead to a full-scale ceasefire''.

Lieutenant-General Leonid Rokhlin, commander of the Russian VIII Corps in central Grozny, said: "There is no doubt that a certain group of Chechen militants will not observe any agreements." In Moscow, an official said air attacks had been suspended before Monday's ceasefire but would only stop if it held.

Gen Stepashin also said Russian special forces were continuing their hunt for the rebel Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev; it was difficult to track him. Moscow has issued a warrant for his arrest. At the weekend Chechen sources said they had foiled an attempt to assassinate Gen Dudayev.

Two Russian members of the border-guard service, which has been involved in the Grozny operation alongside the Interior Ministry forces and the army, were found dead in Ali Yurt, in Ingushetia, yesterday. Six people have been arrested and one is reported to have confessed that the border guards were killed on Monday night.

n Moscow - Rising prices, not war and politics, are what worry ordinary Russians, according to a new poll, Interfax news agency reported yesterday, AFP reports. The poll, taken this month by the Russian Nationwide Centre for Public Opinion Studies, indicated that 83 per cent of those surveyed thought inflation was their biggest problem, 58 per cent the crime wave and 50 per cent the plummeting national production level.

Thirty-three per cent of respondents said that they thought war on Russia's borders was the big problem, up from 15 per cent in July, when the Chechen conflict was only simmering.

The poll, of 1,989 people, suggested that 32 per cent were worried about worsening ethnic relations, up from 16 per cent in July but only 12 per cent worried about the country's leadership problems; 6 per cent thought there was danger of fascism and 5 per cent thought there was a danger of a military takeover.

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