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Chechnya Closer to Achieving Peace, Gaining More Autonomy

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times

As their soldiers shifted from warfare to joint monitoring of a day-old truce, Chechen separatist and Russian leaders opened the first talks in more than a year Saturday on the issue that started the conflict - the republic's demand for independence.

The talks centered on a Russian-proposed treaty allowing both sides to save face after more than 20 months of fighting and 30,000 dead. Russian troops would leave, but tiny Muslim-majority Chechnya would remain part of the Russian Federation with as much autonomy as its voters opt for in a referendum.

Russian security chief Alexander I. Lebed and Aslan Maskhadov, the chief of staff of Chechen separatist forces, were reported near agreement on political points of the draft but at odds over whether Chechnya may keep an independent army. Their talks in the Chechen village of Noviye Atagi were to continue Sunday.

The talks began Saturday after nearly 600 Russian and Chechen soldiers, their gun barrels pointed downward, lined up in a field not far away and signed an oath as peacekeepers.

"This war has cost us a great deal, and now in our hands we have the chance to end the war or to continue it, to kill people or not," Russian Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov said during a televised ceremony initiating the patrols. "Let us put our grudges behind us."

The soldiers then launched joint patrols in Grozny, the Chechen capital overrun by separatists Aug. 6 in the worst fighting since the war's first month. Russian and Chechen troops began leaving Grozny under Thursday's truce accord, which for the first time put the ruined city under shared military command.

The cease-fire and Saturday's peace talks grew from a determined initiative by Lebed, a general-turned-politician, to save his army from its worst humiliation of the post-Soviet era.

This month's two-week rout in Grozny cost the army more than 500 lives and could well have led, defense analysts say, to its disintegration and total defeat in Chechnya.

After appearing to obstruct his protege's peace bid with untimely criticism and contradictory orders, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin telephoned Lebed late Friday to offer his support.

Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, a rival of Lebed's for power in the Kremlin, said he and Yeltsin congratulated the security chief for resolving "the first part of this problem."

The second part - a lasting peace - will be much harder. Chernomyrdin and other officials here said Lebed's proposal, endorsed by Yeltsin, calls for election of a Chechen regional government and a constitutional assembly following the withdrawal of 90 percent of Russia's 40,000 troops now in the republic.