Lebed blasts rival for fuelling Chechen war

Kremlin struggle: As battle to replace Yeltsin goes public, a separatist commander talks of his determination to fight on

The battle-ground in the Chechen conflict switched abruptly from the Caucasus to the Kremlin yesterday when Alexander Lebed, Boris Yeltsin's special envoy to the republic, demanded the dismissal of Russia's powerful Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov.

The former general publicly denounced the minister as "one of the main culprits in the war", and implied his ministry was behind attempts to foment conflict in neighbouring republics.

His onslaught, made after he returned from talks in Chechnya with the rebel leadership, prompted a furious showdown in Moscow, where recriminations are flying over Russia's loss of Grozny to separatist forces.

Mr Kulikov accused Mr Lebed of being "engaged in the maniac pursuit of power". The minister, who said he was drafting a resignation letter, was also critical of the Kremlin, citing a "crisis in Russian power".

He said his ministry's thousands of troops in the republic were "catastrophically" underfunded and undermanned. He complained that he had repeatedly appealed in vain for the imposition of a state of emergency in Chechnya.

There was no indication yesterday of Mr Yeltsin's response to the brawl, although it suggests that his grip on his government is weakening. The President's aides say he is working for only two to three hours a day as he struggles to recover from the "colossal weariness" caused by the elections which ended more than six weeks ago.

Mr Lebed's outburst is yet another step in his campaign to consolidate power after being swept into high office in June by Mr Yeltsin. After he won 10 million votes, the President appointed him secretary of the Security Council. He has since placed him in charge of settling the Chechen crisis.

Within two months, Mr Lebed has secured the scalp of his arch-enemy, the former Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev. He has led a purge in the senior ranks of the army, ousting a handful of generals. He has played a major role in the removal of Mr Yeltsin's hardline confidant, Alexander Korzhakov, and the dismissal of the head of the KGB-style Federal Security Service, Mikhail Barsukov. He has also persuaded President Yeltsin to greatly increase the power of the Security Council.

Mr Lebed accused Mr Kulikov of having "a Napoleon complex". He alleged he had caught agents of the Interior ministry spying on him. He announced that Mr Yeltsin had a choice to make: "only one of us can stay - Lebed or Kulikov." However, he later said this was not a threat to resign.

His remarks seems likely to deepen his conflict with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister, with whom he is engaged in an open battle over who will eventually replace Mr Yeltsin.

On Thursday, Mr Chernomyrdin unveiled his new cabinet in which Mr Kulikov remained at his post, despite the Chechen debacle. Nor is the Prime Minister likely to have welcomed other blunt remarks by his rival, including a warning that Russia was "on the verge of a social explosion".

Although Mr Lebed is creating enemies in the Kremlin, his approach appears to be winning friends in Chechnya, where the Russian Interior Ministry is loathed. The Chechen leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, has spoken warmly of Mr Lebed's efforts to create peace, saying he "deserved strong praise".

The separatists whom Mr Lebed met on Thursday yesterday underscored their approval by releasing 17 Russian hostages. Meanwhile, Russian and Chechen commanders met to negotiate an order suspending combat operations. But these moves towards peace face many hurdles. This includes opposition from the Russian military, who still cling to the belief that they can win outright.

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