A small band of separatists in Chechnya handed over weapons Wednesday in the first step of a 2-week-old peace accord still threatened by bloodshed, mistrust and talk of renewed warfare.
Thirty members of the irregular Chechen army that held off the mighty Russians for half a year surrendered 21 assault rifles, three machine guns, six rocket launchers, 18 mines and 3,000 rounds of ammunition in the mountain village of Zandak.
Shortly afterward, Russian troops began pulling back from that rebel stronghold region of southeastern Chechnya. Chechen villagers gathered along the Russian column’s route and shouted “Troops out,” the Associated Press reported.
The solemn disarmament ceremony, attended by international observers and commanders of the warring armies, followed two days of threats by Russian political leaders to restart the war unless the peace process moved forward.
“What we see here today will happen everywhere else,” Gen. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen army chief of staff, said in a televised speech in Zandak. “If they allow us to fulfill the agreement without ultimatums, we will do so. Once again, I ask the politicians to calm down.”
Russia scored a military victory over the separatists in June, then agreed to a cease-fire after a deadly Chechen guerrilla raid that month into southern Russia.
The peace accord, signed July 30, called for an exchange of all war prisoners within one week, followed by a process in which the Chechens would surrender their weapons while the Russians withdrew most of their forces from the tiny Muslim republic.
But so far, just one prisoner swap--two Russian officers for three Chechen fighters--has taken place. New exchanges have been stalled by disagreement over the number of POWs on each side.
Nor has the accord diminished the level of cease-fire violations by Russian and Chechen forces. While fighting is far less intense than its levels of last winter and spring, when an estimated 20,000 people died, 10 soldiers have been reported killed this month and 45 others wounded on the Russian side alone.
The accord is also limited by lack of a settlement on the issue that ignited the war--Chechnya’s degree of independence from Moscow--and rules for elections in the republic this fall.
Having staked his political fortune on peace, Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin issued a threat Monday to take “the toughest measures” unless Chechen leaders reaffirmed their commitment to disarm their troops by that evening.
Maskhadov balked at the ultimatum, saying it contained tougher disarmament conditions than the pact signed last month. That prompted Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on Tuesday to threaten “special, extraordinary and energetic measures, including military measures” against the separatists.
Despite angry rhetoric from Moscow accusing Chechens of trying to alter the agreement, no tension was evident at the ceremony in Zandak. Maj. Gen. Yevgeny K. Skobelev, the Russian deputy commander in Chechnya, stood by Maskhadov’s side and said they had no disagreements.
“Remember, they have been fighting for some months,” said an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which brokered the accord, “and you cannot expect them to decide overnight that they fully trust each other.”
Sandor Meszaros, a Hungarian diplomat who heads the OSCE mission in Chechnya, said in a telephone interview that he expects disarmament to proceed village by village, with the next step scheduled Friday. Russian troops, he said, will pull back from each village after it is disarmed. Both sides know the process could take up to two months, he said.
A joint Russian-Chechen commission collected the weapons from Chechen fighters in Zandak and bought an additional cache from civilians there.
Seventeen of the collected assault rifles were handed to a self-defense force chosen by village elders from among Zandak’s 3,500 people. Skobelev said the other weapons will be destroyed.
Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev, the ousted Chechen president who reluctantly endorsed the peace pact, is suspected by the Russians of working to undermine it. An unnamed Russian military official told the Interfax news agency that the Russian army is bracing for a series of low-level assaults by Dudayev’s forces on Grozny, the Chechen capital, this month.