Lebed's Chechen deal falls foul of Yeltsin

General vows to achieve lasting deal with rebels
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Despite being burdened by criticisms from his boss, Alexander Lebed, Russia's security chief, last night notched up a surpris-ingly swift victory in Chechnya by striking a ceasefire agreement with the rebel leaders.

But, even if his deal holds with the separatists, it is likely to face opposition from hard-line generals in the Russian military, who are set on pursuing the use of force in an effort to settle the 20-month conflict.

They will be particularly horrified by one of its central components - an agreement to pull some Russian soldiers out of Grozny, and to use others to conduct joint patrols with their sworn enemies, the Chechens.

The accord came after a day of tense negotiations in the war-weary republic, where Mr Lebed averted threats by Russian commanders to launch an all- out assault on Grozny in an effort to flush out a force of several thousand Chechen rebels.

It also coincided with a decision by Boris Yeltsin to end a two-week hibernation by appearing on Russian television to show that, despite appearances, he is in control of his fractious government, and to disprove reports that he is seriously ill.

Yesterday, Mr Lebed em-erged from a meeting in a rebel-held Chechen village saying he had struck an agreement with the Chechen separatist chief-of- staff, Aslan Maskh-adov, in which Russian troops would leave Grozny and start a partial withdrawal from southern Chechnya today. A ceasefire begins at noon.

Standing next to the rebel leader, the retired general unveiled details of a remarkably speedy deal in which Grozny - which was seized by the rebels on 6 August - would be under joint military control before the end of the weekend.

Although reports of the details were vague, its other components included prisoner exchange and disarmament by the Chechens. "Consitutional order cannot be instilled by blanket-bombing or artillery barrages," he said.

Astonishingly, the Security Council secretary also vowed to sign a draft political agreement on Chechnya's status in two days, although it was not clear how far-reaching it would be.

However, the deal is sure to infuriate the more hard-line Russian generals, who have made clear that they oppose a speedy troop withdrawal and want to fight on, despite the loss of 35,000 lives in less than two years. Given their past performance, another confrontation could be looming. Even as Mr Lebed spoke, unconfirmed reports were coming in that 50 Russian Interior Ministry troops had been killed in a fire-fight with rebels in Grozny.

Nor is it certain the deal will hold - all previous peace efforts have collapsed - or if it will be acceptable to Mr Yeltsin, whose policy on Chechnya has become increasingly unclear since his victory in July's election.

After his return from a two-day break in the country, Mr Yeltsin yesterday gave a television interview to a Russian agency, Ria Novisti. "He [Lebed] has always promised to solve the Chechen problem if he had power. Now he has power," Mr Yeltsin said. But he was "not entirely satisfied" with his progress in Chechnya - a remark that appears to reflect his desire to remain on side with the conservatives in his government and the Russian military.

If these efforts to convince the world that the Kremlin is not, after all, in chaos left much to be desired, so too did his attempt to belie persistent reports of ill health. Although he spoke clearly during his TV performance, the president looked wooden and stiff. In another clip, on state-run RTR, he was glimpsed laughing - but it was gave few clues about his health.

But Mr Yeltsin has no reason for particular merriment at present. Even if Mr Lebed has made lasting progress in Chechnya, other battles lie ahead.