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Lebed Seeks to Avert Slaughter Of Civilians in Chechen Conflict

By Vanora Bennett
Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW

Alexander I. Lebed, Russia's audacious security chief, flew to the breakaway region of Chechnya Wednesday to try to avert the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the Chechen capital, Grozny, if Russian generals carry out a threat to bomb the rebel-held city into submission Thursday morning.

Lt. Gen. Konstantin B. Pulikovsky, acting commander of the Russian forces who are fighting separatists in Chechnya, disrupted a peace process started by Lebed last week with his own Tuesday ultimatum for the separatists who have held Grozny since Aug. 6 to get out of town in 48 hours or face a deadly assault.

The latest Chechen crisis also has disclosed a paralyzed, leaderless Russia, with the ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin absent from duty, political leaders - apart from Lebed - apparently unable or unwilling to stop the army bosses and no one quite sure who is running this vast nuclear superpower.

Only Lebed sounded certain his peace moves were still on track. "We will no longer speak the language of ultimatums," he told reporters in the southern Chechen village of Noviye Atagi, where he met Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov after holding brief talks with the Russian generals at their base on the eastern edge of Grozny.

"We will resolve this problem by the morning. We will be guided by humane-ness and reason," added Lebed, a popular former general with a mandate from Yeltsin to find an end to the 20-month war.

But it remained unclear whose orders the 40,000 Russian Defense and Interior Ministry troops based in Chechnya would obey: those of Lebed or their own generals.

Confusion reigned in Grozny, where terrified, elderly refugees stumbled out of their cellars and ruined homes on foot through an afternoon of Russian shelling and airstrikes. They tried to save themselves from the threat of even more deadly bombing in the morning.

Political chaos has also come to Moscow since Pulikovsky started his 48-hour countdown. Despite a storm of protests, threats and pleas, no one in a position of authority has clearly reversed him and ordered him to stand down from his plans. His boss, Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, rushed back from vacation Wednesday night. But he quickly made clear he backed Pulikovsky's plans for more war.

Defense Minister Yuri N. Rodionov, a Lebed ally, said Wednesday that Pulikovsky had been acting on his own initiative when he issued his ultimatum and had been "reprimanded." But he did not cancel the order.

Pulikovsky's ultimatum came after Yeltsin's staff issued confusingly worded instructions, which they said came from the president himself, to restore the situation in the Chechen capital to what it had been before Aug. 6.