Lebed on mission to end war in Chechnya

Russian peace move: Security chief seeks 'face-saving solution to a conflict with no winners'
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The Independent Online
Russia's top security man, Alexander Lebed, was last night preparing for talks with the head of the Chechen separatists after being placed in personal charge of resolving the war by President Boris Yeltsin.

The retired general, secretary of Russia's Security Council, set off for the meeting armed with a fistful of extra powers granted to him by Mr Yeltsin in the hope that they will help end a war that has long been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin, but which - with rebels still controlling much of Grozny - has now become an even greater international embarrassment.

According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Mr Lebed last night flew by helicopter to a village 18 miles south-east of Grozny to discuss ceasefire terms with the separatist leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, and the Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, in a fresh effort to end the bloodshed, which has so far claimed more than 30,000 lives. The mission, part of his second visit to the troubled republic in five days, came as thousands of refugees took advantage of a lull in the fighting to flee from Grozny, after more than a week of hostilities which left hundreds of dead and maimed and which marked the final collapse of several months of faltering peace moves.

On Wednesday, Mr Yeltsin gave Mr Lebed's security council the power to co-ordinate the operation of all federal agencies in Chechnya, including the army, the Russian Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service - all of which have been at loggerheads. The move coincided with Mr Yeltsin's decision to abandon the commission on Chechnya headed by the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, a rival of Mr Lebed's.

Yesterday, after meeting officials from the Russian forces and representatives of the Moscow-backed Chechen government, Mr Lebed was keen to flex his new muscle, threatening to name publicly those he holds responsible for allowing the separatists to seize much of the city 11 days ago.

"Some profit from the fighting," he said, "This is a commercial war."

In contrast to Mr Yeltsin - who secured a ceasefire in May, just weeks before the presidential elections, and immediately flew to Grozny to proclaim a Russian victory - Mr Lebed has called for a "face-saving solution" to a war in which "nobody won and nobody lost".

But, although such remarks appear conciliatory, the odds of long-term success seem to be against him. All previous attempts at negotiations between the Kremlin and the Chechens have collapsed in disarray, partly because Russia remains unwilling to grant the separatists' demands for outright independence.

However, the assault on Grozny has been a jarring blow to Moscow, and will serve as a reminder that the war simply cannot be solved by what the Russian military called their policy of "coercion to peace". Attempts to bomb the Chechens into submission by repeatedly attacking their towns and villages has simply served to harden anti-Moscow sentiment. Even those elements of the civilian population who oppose the separatists, and resent the bloodshed they have wrought, tend to hate the Russians with a still greater passion.

Although they have far less weaponry and number only several thousand, the Chechen fighters have proved that they are remarkably tenacious and probably unbeatable.

They have several advantages over their opponents: many of their commanders have served in the Soviet army, and know how it functions; they know the territory, and have the overwhelming support of the population, which provides food and shelter; the Chechen diaspora provides finance, and they have managed to secure arms, sometimes by buying them from Russian soldiers.

By contrast, the federal forces are torn by rivalries, dismal conditions, and a lack of appetite for a war over a cause that few ordinary Russians feel is worth the price, either in life or in national dignity.