Lull in Grozny, and silence in Moscow

Brian Killen finds cynicism and grief in Chechnya, while Lebed's game plan is still unclear
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The Independent Online
Grozny (Reuter) - It was high noon in the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday, but the gunmen decided not to draw.

A ceasefire had just taken effect. A few Russian military helicopters circled overhead firing the occasional flare. Separatist rebels patrolled the streets and hundreds of refugees took advantage of the lull to revisit their homes.

But few people believed that the relative calm would last long. After almost two years of war, the cemeteries in this rebellious North Caucasus region are full of mothers crying over freshly-dug mounds.

Aisa Abdulazimova was tending the grave of her only son against a background of thick black smoke billowing from fires in oil storage areas of Grozny's main industrial zone.

"Look at that, they have no thought for the mothers," she said, weeping as she remembered her 23-year-old son who was killed early last year in the first weeks of the war. "They never stop digging here."

Hope of a lasting peace was dulled by a more ominous silence in Moscow, where the Kremlin refused to comment after Boris Yeltsin's envoy, Alexander Lebed, struck the ambitious truce deal with Chechnya's separatist rebels and vowed to return today to seal a political settlement.

The President did not even seem ready to meet the man who, after less than a fortnight in charge, claimed to have put an end to the 20-month war which has ruined countless careers and once seemed likely to cost Mr Yeltsin July's election.

Just hours before Thursday's agreement in Chechnya, Mr Yeltsin had even gone on television for the first time in two weeks to chide Mr Lebed for his slow progress, prompting speculation he was either about to dump Mr Lebed or was simply out of touch.

The impression, not for the first time, is that Russian policy on Chechnya, where tens of thousands have died since Mr Yeltsin sent in troops in December 1994, is adrift.

Mr Lebed flew back to Moscow from Chechnya early yesterday, saying he planned to brief Mr Yeltsin on the truce and on the political pact planned for today on relations with Chechnya.

But the presidential press office denied the meeting. A Kremlin source later told Interfax news agency the two might meet, but not until next week - only after a political accord.

In Grozny, rebel fighters wielding Kalashnikovs and grenade-launchers remained in control of much of the city. But tension was high and occasional firefights broke out even within minutes of the midday truce starting. A T-72 tank, captured from the Russians eight days ago, stood in a courtyard at a rebel base next door to a city hospital. The loud hammer of a machine- gun nearby sent some of the rebels scurrying to return fire.

Others shrugged it off and continued to play backgammon. "There has been some shooting from their side, but it has been relatively quiet," said rebel fighter Aslan Shabazov.

The tank, flying the green rebel flag with its black wolf insignia, then swung into action, almost knocking down a tree as it reversed out of the yard throwing up a cloud of dust.

There was a sporadic crack of gunfire from the other side of an adjacent building. Then it all fell quiet. "We are silent, and they are fighting," Mr Shabazov said.

Inside the rebel headquarters, Muslim fighters rested on beds or on the floor. Some drank tea, others listened to music. One 18-year-old, Isa Usupov, recited a poem about the laws of war. "Blood for blood. Kindness for kindness," he said, ending the verse with three chants of "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest). In Moscow, there was no indication what political deal Mr Lebed might be proposing. He has said Chechen independence is not taboo for him. But it has always been the sticking point for Moscow. Despite the supposedly sweeping, though never publicly spelled out, powers given to Mr Lebed by Mr Yeltsin to end the crisis, there has been no indication that the Kremlin is ready to let him offer secession as an option - least of all in the wake of the Russian army's humiliating loss of Grozny on 6 August.

That leaves nothing but theories about what is going on.

Mr Lebed himself says a "party of war" in Moscow is trying to sabotage his peace talks, possibly faking Mr Yeltsin's orders while the President is indisposed. Aides deny the President is ill but he still looked stiff and slow on television on Thursday.

Mr Lebed reckoned this week's threat by the Russian army to bomb Grozny flat was a result of such scheming. For now, the Russian army generals seem to be going along with Mr Lebed's plan to pull troops out of some districts in Chechnya.

One variation on the simple power struggle theory is that Mr Yeltsin still runs policy and is playing his various underlings off against each other to see which one is most successful.

His refusal to meet Mr Lebed may just be the classic tactic of retiring from the scene until it is clear who is doing best.