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Yeltsin Plans Personal Mission to Cechnya to Stop Conflict

By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin announced Thursday that he will venture into the war-wracked republic of Chechnya later this month in a personal mission to end the conflict he instigated with secessionist rebels 16 months ago.

The 65-year-old leader's intention to travel to the scene of the worst bloodshed in this country since World War II followed hints Wednesday from the new Chechen rebel commander that he might be willing to negotiate a peace deal "on certain conditions."

Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev warned as he extended that tenuous olive branch from a guerrilla hide-out in southern Chechnya that one of the conditions would be "a true desire to achieve peace in Chechnya, rather than pre-election propaganda," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying.

Yandarbiyev was named last week to replace fugitive Chechen leader Dzhokhar M. Dudayev, who was reported killed last week in an air strike by Russian government forces. Dudayev's removal from the rebel leadership apparently has broken a deadlock between the Kremlin and Chechen militants bent on winning full independence from Russia.

Yeltsin now can save face in offering to negotiate with the successor to a rebel leader he had branded a criminal and a terrorist. "A president cannot talk to such a person," Yeltsin said of Dudayev in a television interview Thursday. But with the change in rebel command, Yeltsin said he was now "ready to meet the opposition. ... to demonstrate our goodwill."

In the broadcast, aired in the region and excerpted by the Interfax news agency, Yeltsin said only that the visit will be in mid-May.

Yeltsin has not visited Chechnya since sending in tens of thousands of troops, tanks and helicopter gunships in December 1994 to put down an independence bid led by Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force general. As many as 30,000 people, mostly Chechen civilians, have been killed in the fierce fighting and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

"I must first of all thank the military, who have done a great deal of work there," Yeltsin said in the interview. "Secondly, I am going to meet with (Chechen) elders and thirdly, to give an impulse to negotiations."

The Kremlin leader announced March 31 that he was imposing a unilateral cease-fire on government troops in the region and that a phased withdrawal of federal forces was to be completed by the end of this year. He proposed mediated peace talks but refused to meet face-to-face with Dudayev.

Despite the trumpeted peace plan that many saw as an election-year tactic, combat has continued unabated as federal commanders have pressed their campaign to wipe out the last guerrilla strongholds and the rebels retaliate with ambushes against retreating government forces.