Kremlin blamed by Lebed for bloodshed

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The Independent Online
President Boris Yeltsin's new envoy to Chechnya, Alexander Lebed, yesterday returned from a lightning visit to the edge of the war zone full of criticism for the Russian authorities and their handling of the rebellious Caucasian region.

During his trip, he had talks with the moderate Chechen field commander, Aslan Maskhadov, as a result of which Russian and Chechen officers were yesterday in telephone contact with each other in an attempt to arrange a ceasefire in and around Grozny. But the internal fighting may only just be starting in the Kremlin after General Lebed's savage criticism of the Russian government and its representatives in Chechnya.

A new system for dealing with Chechnya needed to be worked out, he said, suggesting that the Security Council, which he chairs, should start to work on the problem on a permanent basis. He was critical of the existing State Commission for Chechnya, headed by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and suggested that he should deal only with economic aspects of policy towards the region.

General Lebed, co-opted onto the Kremlin team as head of national security after doing well in the first round of the presidential election, and still enjoying a reputation as "Mr Clean", accused Moscow's puppet government in Grozny of corruption and of fuelling the war in the interests of its own survival. Money from the federal budget was being channelled to the rebels "through commercial banks with the tacit consent of the Chechen government," he said.

The government in Moscow lacked objective information about Chechnya. "A torrent of lies is coming from Chechnya, especially from the Chechen leader, Doku Zavgayev," he said, referring to the head of the puppet administration.

He also attacked the team of President Yeltsin's former envoy to Chechnya, Oleg Lobov, who was sacked on Saturday after a week of fighting in the region which ruined the President's inauguration celebrations. In the middle of the crisis, a deputy to Mr Lobov was sunning himself on holiday in Cyprus, General Lebed said.

During his short trip to Chechnya, General Lebed visited Russian troops serving in the area and was appalled. Conscripts at federal checkpoints were "half-starved, lousy and undressed," he said.

"These weakened men can hardly represent the interior ministry or the defence ministry. Partisans in the Second World War were dressed better than our soldiers today." He added: "I had a feeling things were far from good but I did not think they were as bad as this."

The root of the Chechen problem was in Moscow, he declared in a statement which is likely to make him enemies in the Kremlin. He admitted that he was taking a risk by being so outspoken. There were people in power who wanted "Chechnya to be my undoing", he said. A joke currently doing the rounds among ordinary Russians says that Chechnya will turn Lebed, whose name means "swan", into a duck.

By contrast, General Lebed seemed to get on well with Mr Maskhadov and the other Muslim leaders whom he met late on Sunday in the village of Stary Atagi, about 12 miles south of Grozny. A Russian television report said they had found "a common language on 95 per cent of the issues".

According to General Lebed, Mr Maskhadov, who is more moderate than other Chechens on the issue of independence, had agreed that "Russia can live without Chechnya but Chechnya cannot live without Russia". The General said he got the impression that Mr Maskhadov would be satisfied with autonomy similar to that enjoyed by Tatarstan, which is another Muslim region of Russia.

The general said he and Mr Maskhadov shared the view that Russia could crush Chechnya, but only by sacrificing thousands of lives, and that nobody needed such a victory. The two men agreed to try and achieve a ceasefire. Mr Maskhadov said that for a truce to work, it was a condition that Russia did not introduce a state of emergency in Chechnya, as politicians in Moscow have been demanding since the latest upsurge in fighting. General Lebed said Russia had neither the men nor money to impose a state of emergency.

On the ground, battles continued to rage yesterday for the seventh day, in the worst fighting since Moscow first sent its tanks and troops to Chechnya in December 1994. The Russians were reported to have stopped their air attacks over the city but civilians had abandoned the streets to the army and the rebel gunmen.

Near the southern Russian city of Volgograd, a bomb exploded on a packed train, killing a woman and injuring several other passengers. It was not clear whether Chechens or the Mafia were behind the attack, one of a series of unsolved terrorist incidents in Russia this summer.

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