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Fighting in Chechnya Eases After Yeltsin Orders Ceasefire

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
MOSCOW

Fighting eased but the dying apparently did not stop in the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya Monday after President Boris Yeltsin ordered a unilateral cease-fire and political steps to end the 15-month-old conflict there.

In Moscow, reaction to Yeltsin's peace plan was mixed but tended toward skepticism. Most of the president's adversaries, as well as neutral analysts, regarded his proposal more as a political gambit 11 weeks ahead of June's presidential elections than as a serious attempt to resolve the conflict - the bloodiest, in terms of Russians killed, since World War II.

Chechen fighters also were deeply wary of Yeltsin's latest proposal, which in many respects was a rehash of Moscow's previous positions. However, there was no direct word from the rebel leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, with whom Yeltsin said he was prepared to negotiate through intermediaries.

The Interfax news agency reported that 28 Russian troops died and 69 were injured when Chechen fighters ambushed their convoy in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Chechnya shortly after Yeltsin's cease-fire order was to take effect at midnight Sunday. There was no word on Chechen losses.

The report was unconfirmed. If true, it would represent one of the Russian forces' heavier one-day casualty tolls in recent months of fighting.

More than 30,000 people, the large majority of them civilians, have died since Yeltsin ordered troops into Chechnya to crush a separatist rebellion in December 1994.

There were conflicting accounts - including some from Russian military officers - of the extent to which the Russian cease-fire was observed Monday. Yeltsin's previous pronouncements and decrees concerning the war, including cease-fires, often have not been translated into reality in the field.

In a sign of the tenuousness of the cease-fire, the Russian military commander in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, made conflicting statements.

"The president has given an order to stop military operations from midnight and not one shot will be fired today," he said Monday morning. He added, however: "Special operations will continue against the banned formations and against terrorists, perhaps not on the same scale as before."

Quoting Russian forces in Chechnya, Interfax reported that aside from "insignificant incidents," most fighting had come to a halt Monday afternoon after nearly a month of an intensive Russian offensive against separatist rebels.

But Chechen rebel spokesman Mavladi Udugov said fighting was continuing in the afternoon, with heavy casualties to Russian forces.

Yeltsin's peace plan, unveiled after weeks of secrecy in a prime-time televised address Sunday evening, calls for a gradual withdrawal of Russian troops - but only from the two-thirds of Chechen territory that authorities consider "peaceful."

Yeltsin said he is prepared to grant the region special autonomous status within the Russian Federation and to appoint Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to head a special commission to resolve the conflict. He also called for parliamentary elections within Chechnya and said he would call on the Russian parliament to grant an amnesty for most Chechen fighters.

But Yeltsin stopped short of meeting the rebels' two core demands: total independence for Chechnya and the complete withdrawal of all Russian forces from the Connecticut-sized area.

Sergei Kovalyov, a Russian human rights activist, faulted Yeltsin for ruling out independence before entering negotiations with the Chechens.

"If a conflict gets this far, negotiations must start from scratch," he told reporters. Nonetheless, he called the easing of Russian shelling of Chechen towns and villages "a step in the right direction."

Yeltsin's chief political rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, said Yeltsin's proposal incorporated elements of the Communists' own plan for Chechnya but would not work anyway.

"Unfortunately, the Russian president's program was made public too late," he said. "Negotiations with Dudayev should have been started before the hostilities in Chechnya."