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Yeltsin Gives Television Address, Rebukes Lebed on Chechen War

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
MOSCOW

As fierce fighting in Chechnya eased, a relatively robust-looking Boris Yeltsin went on television Thursday and rebuked Alexander Lebed, who had defused a massive Russian attack and brokered a shaky cease-fire just hours earlier.

The Russian president, seen for the first time in nearly two weeks, teased the media for spreading rumors about his health and reprimanded Lebed, his national-security chief, for not ending the war after 12 days on the job as his personal envoy to Chechnya. The war started 20 months ago when Yeltsin ordered troops into the separatist region to crush an independence drive.

"I'm not completely satisfied with Lebed and his work in Chechnya," Yeltsin said gravely in remarks to journalists broadcast on Russian television.

The president's comments seemed intended to whittle his brash and increasingly popular security chief down to size after a whirlwind two weeks in which Lebed has monopolized the nation's media and assumed the starring role of peacemaker.

But there seemed to be a risk that in undercutting Lebed, Yeltsin would also undercut the tenuous peace deal that Lebed clinched Thursday. A couple of hours after Yeltsin's broadcast appearance, there was a report that more than 50 Russian soldiers were killed in fresh fighting in Grozny, according to the independent Interfax news agency, which quoted a Russian military source in Chechnya.

Thursday's broadcast "is vintage Yeltsin," said a foreign diplomat in Moscow. "He watches his subordinates to see who emerges in the strongest role, then slaps down anyone who oversteps. Lebed overstepped."

Yeltsin recalled that Lebed, who ran for president this spring, had "constantly" promised to wind down the war if he were elected. "Well, now he has power," Yeltsin said. "But unfortunately I don't see any results so far."

Millions of Russians did see results, at least for the moment. It was Lebed's shuttle diplomacy between federal forces and Chechen guerrillas late Wednesday that seemed to scuttle plans for an all-out Russian air and artillery attack Thursday morning.

Tens of thousands of terrified residents had fled Grozny, the Chechen capital, after a Russian military commander issued an ultimatum Monday, warning he would pulverize the city starting at 8 a.m. Thursday.

However, a ferocious Russian bombardment began Wednesday afternoon. Hundreds of shells, bombs and rockets smashed into Grozny, but the Russian guns fell silent that evening when Lebed arrived in Chechnya on his third peacemaking trip to the southern region in 10 days. The guns remained relatively quiet for most of Thursday as Lebed closed a cease-fire deal with rebel military commander Aslan Maskhadov after hours of negotiations.

The deal is extraordinary in that it appears to leave the Chechen guerrillas in control of most of Grozny, which they captured from Russian forces after an audacious raid that began Aug. 6.

Under the agreement, Russian troops would be pulled back from their positions near Chechen strongholds throughout the region next week, Interfax reported. They would also nearly abandon Grozny by withdrawing to just a handful of bases on the city's outskirts. The several thousand Chechen rebels in the city would not be required to remove their forces from areas they control.

Joint Russian-rebel command offices would be set up starting this weekend, and a special conciliation commission would be established to enforce the cease-fire.

Cease-fire agreements have come and gone in the course of the war, and there is no reason to believe this one will be more durable than the others. Lebed's cease-fire accord seemed particularly shaky after Yeltsin scolded him on television Thursday. Nonetheless, Russian commanders ordered their forces to suspend attacks Thursday, and the guerrillas also curtailed operations.

Lebed said he expects little credit as a result of his mediating efforts. "I foresee public attacks on me on the part of gung-ho patriots and gung-ho democrats," he said after the deal was signed.

What he did not foresee, apparently, was the attack by Yeltsin. But the Russian president seemed to be using his favorite management technique - keeping his warring aides and advisers in delicate balance, never letting any one star shine too brightly. In this case, analysts said, Lebed was threatening to upstage his boss.

Yeltsin, 65, who had two bouts of heart trouble last year, dismissed rumors about his health.