Yeltsin softens line on Chechen rebels

Boris Yeltsin is planning to see first-hand the small, rebellious Caucasian republic that has done so much damage to his credibility and prospects for re-election.

Yesterday he said he planned to go to Chechnya in the middle of the month and was prepared to meet separatist representatives, according to Interfax news agency. The visit would be his first since he launched the war by sending in troops in December 1994 and appears to be another step in efforts to end the conflict before next month's election.

His stance appears to mark a softening of tone; he refused to negotiate directly with the rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was killed on 21 April. Dudayev's successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, said he was ready to talk to Moscow's top leaders, without naming the President. Whether he would seriously negotiate so soon after talking over the leadership remains doubtful, if only because he would risk being accused by fellow Chechens of betraying Dudayev's cause. He has already demanded several conditions, saying talks should be conditional on withdrawal of Russian troops, and have nothing to do with "propagandist acts in the pre-election period".

As the two sides maneouvred, hostilities continued. Authorities in neighbouring Dagestan said rebels took seven policemen hostage. In Shali, 30 miles from Grozny, the Russians threatened to attack the town unless 300 separatist fighters lay down their weapons and left.

t Riga - A report for a Russian think-tank calling for an attack on the Baltic states if they got into Nato has caused alarm, Reuter reports. "In such an event, it is impossible to rule out pre-emptive military action ...with the aim of decisively cutting short possible practical steps towards carrying out the implementation of the mentioned provocative plans," the report was quoted as saying.