Lebed peace drive hit by snags

Peace talks in Chechnya were interrupted yesterday after Alexander Lebed, the envoy of Boris Yeltsin, cancelled a meeting with rebel leaders and flew back to Moscow, saying he wanted the President's personal approval for proposals about the republic's status.

No sooner had he boarded the aircraft than his mission hit fresh difficulties when the commander of Russian forces in the war zone called off a meeting with the Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov. General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov refused to go to the talks because of an incident in Grozny on Saturday in which Chechen fighters intercepted a convoy of Interior Ministry troops and released them only after they had handed over their weapons, 50 in all.

The general, who last week gave his backing to a threat to launch an all-out assault on the city, said the meeting was cancelled because the Chechens failed to respond to demands that the weapons be returned.

For the same reason, plans to withdraw Russian troops from Grozny were delayed yesterday, although federal forces began to leave parts of southern Chechnya. Two battalions reportedly left Shatoi and Vedeno, two flashpoints of the war.

By standards of the Chechen war, the Grozny incident was petty. The Chechens apologised, saying the fighters were renegades, who had been detained. The general's stance is certain to intensify suspicions that he is among those in top military ranks who strongly oppose Mr Lebed's mission to end the 20-month conflict, in which 35,000 have died. Mr Lebed, an old colleague of the general, frequently complains about a "third force" determined to prolong the war.

Last night the Chechens said they saw no setback in Mr Lebed's return to Moscow, where he intends to seek the views of Mr Yeltsin, the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and experts in international law over proposals presented by the Chechens.

Although details are unknown, both sides appear to favour elections in Chechnya and a referendum. Although the Russians are thought to be willing to allow some independence, including a separate judicial system, constitution, and security services, Moscow still regards complete autonomy as impossible. Yesterday Mr Chernomyrdin reinforced this view, saying Chechnya "must be within Russia", although its exact status would be decided at a later date. One sticking-point is the Chechens' desire for their own army. Russia is willing to allow them to serve in their own forces in the republic, but it wants their military to come under the umbrella of the federation.

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