Reluctant Russian army begins Chechnya withdrawal

Boris Yeltsin's high-stakes plan to end the Chechnya war before the presidential election is set to totter a few steps further forward today with the start of a gradual withdrawal of some Russian troops from the war-battered republic.

The first tentative stage of a partial pull-out is scheduled to begin with the withdrawal of forces, mostly from northern areas of Chechnya where there is little or no fighting.

Yuri Baturin, the Kremlin's national security adviser, yesterday flew to the Chechen capital Grozny to supervise the operation, amid loud rumblings from the Russian military that it will be suspended if there is an upsurge in hostilities.

Fourteen units from the Russian Army and the Interior Ministry will take part in the first stage of what looks certain to be a long, slow and incomplete withdrawal of troops to bases in neighbouring areas, including Ingushetia and Dagestan. There are plans for the process to continue throughout the year.

With two months to go to the Russian presidential election, the withdrawal has as much to do with campaign politics as it has with concrete progress towards a plausible future settlement. Mr Yeltsin has admitted the Chechen conflict may destroy his re-election chances if it is allowed to fester; he desperately wants to be seen to be making progress with the peace plan which he unveiled a fortnight ago.

But ending the 16-month conflict within such a short time span is an ambitious undertaking. A more probable reading of his plan is that he is seeking to wind down the war, removing it altogether from the television headlines -- which are already increasingly dominated with news of his campaigning. Yesterday they showed the President leading the Easter mass in the newly rebuilt Christ the Saviour cathedral in Moscow, the first since it was demolished by Stalin 65 years ago.

Russian generals have made clear that they intend to carry on fighting the rebels by mounting "special operations". These assaults are supposed to target the separatist forces alone, but - if Russia's past performance in the region is any guide - they seem bound to include numerous civilian casualties.

Although Mr Yeltsin called an immediate ceasefire on 31 March, fighting and Russian bombing raids have continued, with scores of casualties on both sides. Reports circulated yesterday of clashes in Grozny, and at least three villages. According to Itar-Tass news agency, gunmen shot out the windows of the heavily guarded Chechen government building in Grozny.

Mr Yeltsin has offered to hold indirect talks with the rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev. But an aide representing the president of the Russian republic of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiyev - the chosen intermediary - failed to meet General Dudayev on a trip to the Caucasus last week.