Grozny ceasefire lasts five minutes

Battle for Chechnya: Rebels accuse Russians of refugee attack; Russia says rebels fired first

On the first day of the new ceasefire in Chechnya yesterday, rebels accused Russian helicopter pilots of firing rockets on a column of refugees, and sporadic shooting continued in the capital Grozny.

Despite the violations, however, fighting overall seemed to have been less intense than over the last eight days and in the evening, military representatives from both sides met to try and strengthen the ceasefire.

Matters had not looked hopeful in the morning when the commander of Russian forces, General Konstantin Pulikovsky, denied that he and the rebel chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, had agreed a ceasefire as announced on Tuesday. All he would say was that his troops would not fire first.

The Chechens, who said the ceasefire had been agreed, accused the Russians of violating it only five minutes after it went into force at midday, with the air strike against fleeing civilians. "Today at 12.05pm, Russian aircraft launched a rocket attack against Grozny," said a rebel spokesman, Movladi Udugov, specifying the area in which it happened. "Many people have been killed."

A Reuters correspondent, Lawrence Sheets, said he saw from a distance how a helicopter fired a rocket at the time and in the area mentioned by Mr Udugov. The Russian side did not comment on the Chechen accusation but said the rebels had violated the truce by firing on its servicemen.

There was still some will to achieve a ceasefire, however. In the evening, Russian officers left their main base near Grozny to meet rebel representatives in the village of Novye Atagi. Tass news agency said they would discuss "all questions linked with mutual obligations reached on Tuesday between Konstantin Pulikovsky and Aslan Maskhadov on not opening fire unnecessarily".

A ceasefire was ordered by President Boris Yeltsin's new envoy to Chechnya, Alexander Lebed, who on Sunday made a lightning visit to the region and met Maskhadov. His political future now very much depends on whether the bloodshed comes to a quick end. An outsider in the Kremlin - he was appointed national security chief in June after coming third in the first round of the presidential elections - he has already made enemies for himself by criticising the government's handling of Chechnya.

On Monday, when he returned from the region, he declared that Mr Yeltsin was about to sign a decree, giving him more powers to make decisions over Chechnya and reducing the influence of the Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. RIA news agency said last night that the decree had been issued although Mr Yeltsin's press service, Izvestia, could not confirm this.

Izvestia said Mr Chernomyrdin and Mr Yeltsin's chief of administration, Anatoly Chubais, were against the decree because it would make General Lebed too powerful. "Lebed, whose talents in the military sphere are unquestioned, may be outclassed when it comes to Kremlin intrigue," it commented.

Mr Yeltsin was yesterday having routine medical checks before leaving on holiday. His new spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said the leader was "in good working form".

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