Lebed flies in to halt Chechen carnage

War hero faces daunting test

Helen Womack
Sunday 11 August 1996 23:02

General Alexander Lebed, widely seen as the rising star of Russian politics, was facing his first big public test yesterday as he flew to the Caucasus to try to broker a ceasefire in the Chechen war.

The day after he was appointed President Boris Yeltsin's special envoy to the region, he few to Dagestan, which borders on the war zone, to seek the advice of Muslim leaders. Interfax news agency said he might meet Chechen separatists in the Dagestan village of Khasavyurt.

The retired general, who performed so well in the first round of the presidential election that Mr Yeltsin made him his national security adviser, is seen by many Russians as a miracle worker who can end the 20-month agony in Chechnya. But it remains to be seen what initiatives he will offer.

General Lebed set off on his mission after a crisis meeting in the Kremlin with President Yeltsin and Viktor Chernomyrdin, who on Saturday was reconfirmed as Prime Minister by the Communist-dominated parliament.

Mr Yeltsin instructed Mr Chernomyrdin to investigate the "gross miscalculations" which allowed Chechen rebels to overrun the Chechen capital, Grozny, and ruin his inauguration last week.The Prime Minister then convened a meeting of Russia's State Commission on Chechnya. This decided that federal forces would have to be strengthened, although talks remain the ultimate goal.

On the ground, Russian troops were still struggling to expel the rebels from Grozny. Sergei Trofimov, of Tass news agency, who was among civilians trapped by fighting in the city centre, said federal forces had reached the besieged government building and had evacuated some wounded soldiers. "The blockade of central Grozny was broken through last night by units of interior troops and a motorised infantry regiment," he said.

However, fierce house-to-house fighting continued. The Russian military command admitted that up to 200 servicemen had been killed and 800 wounded since last Tuesday. There was no confirmation of a rebel claim that 150 Russian troops were killed in one incident alone yesterday, when their convoy was ambushed as it moved to relieve the town of Argun. Both sides exaggerate when speaking of each other's losses.

With Chechnya plunged into the worst violence since early 1995, immediately after Moscow sent tanks and troops to crush its separatist rebellion, all eyes were on General Lebed, the veteran of the Afghan war who won respect in Russia for stopping ethnic violence in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

"Lebed is a military man, he is used to tackling these sorts of problems," Tass quoted Mr Chernomyrdin as saying. "I am sure that he will cope with his task. He simply must do this."

General Lebed has played his cards close to his chest since Mr Yeltsin appointed him on Saturday to replace his previous envoy to Chechnya. "Let's take a look at some kind of new solution, new approach," is all the general said.

Although there is a risk for General Lebed that his new political career could come to grief in Chechnya, he has, perhaps, a better chance than any other Russian leader of achieving something in the region, as he is not tainted by involvement in the war so far.

Indeed, he spoke against it from the very moment the former defence minister, Pavel Grachev, launched Moscow's military intervention.

General Lebed may choose to keep out of what will inevitably be the messy military clean-up in Grozny and concentrate on a wider solution. During his election campaign, he spoke of the possibility of Chechen independence if a referendum showed it was the will of the majority. Last week he suggested a conference involving all parties in the conflict.

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