STRUGGLE FOR THE KREMLIN: Chechens fear that war will return

Peace in danger

People in Chechnya greeted the news of Alexander Lebed's removal with apprehension. "We are very anxious, the struggle for power that is going on in Moscow is far from funny," said the chief Chechen spokesman, Movladi Udugov. "Lebed was and is the key to a peaceful settlement in Chechnya and it is thanks to him there is no more shooting," he said.

The Chechen leadership issued a statement yesterday supporting the peace process and the continuation of political dialogue. "But we are ready for any unexpected turn of events. If the war starts tomorrow we will not be especially surprised," Mr Udugov said.

The Russian deputy interior minister, Valery Fyodorov, exuded a sense of calm and order as he inspected a police unit sharing quarters with the Chechen fighters.

He said "there should be no anxiety" over Lebed's departure. "People come and go and the president stays the same. Questions of war and peace are the decision of the president and the government." The withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya would continue, said the commander of Russian interior ministry troops in Grozny, General Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, as would work on prisoner exchanges.

But the Chechen separatists all said that Mr Lebed was still needed to keep the peace process going. Although many of the Russian troops have been pulled in to two Russian bases on the north and east edges of Grozny, there were still scattered posts on the central plains around the city and concentrations of troops in the north of the republic, they said.

No agreement has been reached for the withdrawal of the last two brigades, numbering an estimated 18,000 men.

"I took part in some of the peace talks and I think Lebed was truly interested in finding a lasting peace," said Aslanbek Ismailov, one of Chechnya's top commanders, who has been in charge in Grozny since the rebels seized the town. "At the moment there is no one better than Lebed," he said.

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