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Yeltsin promises talks on Chechnya

Boris Yeltsin and his Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, both made fresh moves to clear the path for negotiations over the Chechen war yesterday - underlining their desperation to convince voters they can solve the conflict before it further damages the President's re-election prospects.

But Mr Yeltsin, who has promised to settle the affair before next month's election, also conceded it was possible that nothing will result until after the poll. There may be a "delay" in the outcome of any talks because the issue is "far from simple", he said during a campaign visit to Yaroslavl, north-east of Moscow.

The beleaguered President, who trails the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, in most polls, said he intended to announced a formula for a settlement in Chechnya during a visit to the republic later this month. He said talks would involve three parties - the Moscow-backed Chechen government, the Russian federation, and separatist leaders - although it is unclear whether the latter would agree to take part.

Mr Yeltsin has made clear that he was not willing to grant complete independence to Chechnya. But Mr Primakov appeared to take a more flexible line. "Everything is negotiable, all questions can be put on the table, including any kind of status for Chechnya," he said. However, it is understood he is still against full independence.

He made his remarks in Strasbourg where he was attending a meeting of foreign ministers from the Council of Europe, which admitted Russia as a member earlier this year.

But the Kremlin appears to be genuinely pushing for a settlement in Chechnya in the hope of limiting the damage of the 17-month conflict which has claimed more than 30,000 lives and has led to the destruction of its capital, Grozny.

It remains questionable whether Chechen rebel leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbeyiv, can enter talks so soon after last month's death of his predecessor, Dzhokhar Dudayev, without producing a backlash.