Jubilant Maskhadov claims landslide victory in Chechnya

Aslan Maskhadov, the shrewd and grizzled soldier who helped lead Chechnya in its war against Russia, last night claimed an outright victory in the republic's presidential elections. He made it clear that he wanted Chechen independence to be recognised by the rest of the world - including its old enemies in Moscow.

His campaign team said that initial figures showed the 45-year-old former Russian army colonel had secured 63 per cent of the vote, a result that produced muted relief in Moscow. Although there were scattered allegations of irregularity, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe was also quick to acknowledge the poll. "It has created a legitimate basis for the new government," said its representative, Tim Guldimann.

The quietly spoken Mr Maskhadov, the former chief-of-staff for the Chechen forces, began his term of office by going straight to the heart of the issue that led his republic to split away from Russia six years ago, a move that eventually led Boris Yeltsin to send in his tanks and bombers in 1994, beginning a 21-month war in which an estimated 80,000 died.

He made clear he believed the mountain republic has already secured de facto independence. "We determined this back in 1991 when we declared our sovereignty," he said. "There is only one thing to be done now. This independence should be recognised by all the countries of the world, Russia included. We are going to implement all this, only using political methods."

Under a peace deal struck with Russia in August and signed by Mr Maskhadov himself, both the republic and Moscow have agreed to postpone a decision on Chechnya's status until 2001, although the new president made it clear he wants the process speeded up. He said: "We want to solve all these issues as soon as possible."

Chechnya, whose citizens are still armed to the teeth, was yesterday relieved that the elections had gone ahead peacefully, although Mr Maskhadov had harsh words for "political provocations" cooked up in Moscow where there were attempts to obstruct them, including a move to give arms to Cossacks on the republic's border.

Although Russia may dismiss Chechen cries of independence as wishful thinking, it will convince no one. Its troops, civil servants and security services have withdrawn, leaving the Chechens to try to carve out a life among the wreckage. There is about as much sense of a federal presence in this Islamic republic as there is alcohol in the market place: none.

The question is what, if anything, will Moscow do? With Mr Maskhadov in charge, Russia seems certain to let matters rest. Any attempt to corral the republic back into its pen by cutting Chechnya's gas supply would summon up the spectre of Shamil Basayev, who was running second with an estimated 26 per cent. Mr Maskhadov is expected to include Mr Basayev, who is still branded a terrorist by Russia, in his new government, not least because the former commander has a large following of armed young Chechens.

Last night the new president described Mr Basayev, 32, as his "comrade in arms", adding: "If he wants he can come to me and be my friend as he was before." But Mr Basayev is likely to want a top job, as prime minister, or vice president. Nor is Moscow in a position to get embroiled in another war. Its military is falling apart. Another conflict would produce nothing except more loss of life. It would also disrupt its plans to use a pipeline across Chechnya to transport oil from the Caspian to the Black Sea.

The Russian President Boris Yeltsin met the secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States yesterday, and brief footage of the meeting was televised. It was the first time the Kremlin leader had been shown on television for three weeks. Aides insist the President, 66 on Saturday, is recovering from the pneumonia which earlier this month marred his political comeback after heart surgery in November. But communist and nationalist politicians continue to argue that he is no longer fit to rule Russia and should retire.

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