Moscow and Chechnya struggle to rescue peace

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Russian government and Chechen officials were last night struggling to salvage the peace accord between Moscow and Chechnya, signed in August, amid fears that the region could again flare into violence. The death toll from Monday's blast at a railway station in the southern Russian town of Pyatigorsk, 80 miles from the Chechen border, increased to two yesterday when a 15-year-old girl died. Twenty people were injured in the blast.

Meanwhile the Russian Interior Ministry said more troops were being deployed at border crossings after about 20 gunmen shot at a police post yesterday morning, wounding two officers. The gunmen retreated to Chechnya after the attack.

Salman Raduyev, renegade commander of a splinter group of Chechens, is suspected of being behind the violence. He led a mass hostage-taking which resulted in the Russian bombardment of a village in Dagestan in January 1996.

The guerrilla leader, who openly opposes the republic's separatist government, claimed responsibility for another railway station bombing at Armavir last Wednesday, in which two people died. But Chechen officials blamed embittered elements in the Russian security services, whom they suspect of trying to derail the peace process.

Although Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, yesterday insisted peace negotiations would be unaffected, no one disputes that relations between Moscow and Chechnya have been fraying fast, corroded by the republic's insistence that it is already independent despite Moscow's demand that it remains within the federation. Chechnya's vice president, Vakha Arsanov, yesterday went so far as to accuse Russia's Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov, of organising the attacks, and warned that further talks were impossible in the current climate.

A reminder of the republic's self-declared autonomy was the appointment as first deputy prime minister of Shamil Basayev, the commander who led the 1995 hostage-taking raid on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk. He is still officially considered a wanted terrorist by Russia.

Last week the deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, Boris Berezovsky, met Mr Basayev for talks, a move which appeared to tacitly acknowledge that he was a legitimate member of the Chechen government.

All this puts Boris Yeltsin in an increasingly painful, and perilous, situation. After blundering into a humiliating 21-month war which cost up to 80,000 lives, he will not want to send his troops in again. But the pressure from Moscow's hard-liners to rein in the disobedient republic can only grow worse.