Grozny bombs sound warning for Yeltsin

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Tensions were rising in Chechnya yesterday after four people were killed in bomb blasts, providing another reminder of the herculean task facing President Boris Yeltsin if he is to solve the conflict in time to breath life into his flagging re-election prospects.

The explosions were in Grozny, where several thousand supporters of the separatist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, were in the sixth day of a rally calling for withdrawal of Russian troops and the resignation of Chechnya's Moscow-backed regional government.

Last night a potentially dangerous stand-off was developing after the Russian Interior Ministry threatened to break up the demonstration - centred on a cluster of tents outside the ruins of Mr Dudayev's presidential palace. The ministry's heavily armed Omon troops ringed the scene, barring the way for angry Chechens who flocked there after news of the bombs spread. It was unclear who was responsible for the blasts but the initial response of the Russian authorities was to call it a Dudayev-inspired ``provocation aimed at stirring up anti-Russian hysteria''.

The rally and yesterday's bloodshed have cranked up pressure on the Yeltsin administration, which is trying to work out how to wind down the unpopular war to a level at which the Kremlin can to claim credit for achieving peace, in the hope that this will win votes in June's presidential election.

The President, who is expected to announce his candidacy in his home city of Yekaterinburg next Thursday, has been frank about his dilemma. ``You understand as well as anyone that a withdrawal of federal troops will spell bloodshed throughout Chechnya,'' he said this week. ``But the continued presence of the army will bury my chance to stay in office. The people will not elect me.''

Mr Yeltsin claims to be considering seven possible solutions to the 14- month war, which has claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and has heaped humiliation on Russia's army. After a stormy meeting on Thursday, the Russian Security Council set up a committee to study the ``seven solutions'' in the hope of reaching what Mr Yeltsin described as a compromise.

An intriguing glimpse of the options under consideration came yesterday when the Interfax news agency carried details of a speech by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. He said the issue would gradually be made an ``internal Chechen affair''; talks would increasingly be handled by Doku Zavgayev, the Moscow-backed prime minister; efforts would be made to hold regional elections to a People's Assembly in the spring, by which time Russia hopes to have withdrawn all it troops, accept those stationed there.

Work would continue on a power-sharing agreement. Last night, however, Interfax mysteriously cancelled the report, saying it had been released too soon by mistake.