The shaky peace in Chechnya disintegrated further Monday when Russian troops shelled a police station in Argun to dislodge rebel Chechens holed up inside.
The skirmish was the second incident of heavy fighting in Chechnya in the past week and was seen as more evidence of how the Chechen rebels have become increasingly factionalized.
Rebel military commander Aslan Maskhadov was to resume peace talks Monday with Russian authorities in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and the seizure of the police station in Argun was seen as an attempt by forces loyal to rebel President Dzhokar M. Dudayev to torpedo further progress.
The Chechens and Russians signed a preliminary peace agreement June 30, and some Chechen fighters have begun token disarmament, though most of the weapons handed in reportedly have been damaged or are obsolete.
Dudayev, after initially criticizing the peace accord, said he would abide by it and then appeared to change his mind.
Russians and Chechens have since accused each other of undermining the agreement and staging attacks to derail the on-again, off-again peace talks.
Last week, Russian bombers struck a rebel stronghold in southern Chechnya after Chechen fighters reportedly shelled Russian positions. It was the first large-scale bombing since the peace talks began in June. Skirmishes were also reported in the town of Achkhoi-Martan in southwestern Chechnya.
On Sunday evening, a group of about 250 fighters under the command of Alaudi Khamzatov drove into Argun, about nine miles east of Grozny, and seized the local police station. Once a rebel stronghold, Argun was captured by Russian forces on March 23 after a prolonged siege.
“I am the commandant of Argun appointed by the president [Dudayev],” Khamzatov told the Russian independent television station NTV. “I’ve come back to my hometown.”
The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Chechen law enforcement agencies as saying that Khamzatov is a convicted murderer with a long prewar criminal record. It said Khamzatov was close to Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who seized a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk in June. At least 130 people were killed there in what became Russia’s worst hostage crisis, prompting Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin to agree to a new series of peace talks with the Chechens.
Shortly after the Budennovsk crisis ended, Khamzatov told NTV: “We have nowhere to retreat to. We can repeat [Budennovsk] in a worse way. Russia doesn’t realize that it may suffer more.”
By midday Monday, Russian commanders had dispatched a column of tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships to Argun and begun shelling the police station. A Russian military spokesman said that by 8 p.m. local time, the rebels had been “destroyed” and only a few had managed to escape the Russian cordon. But Itar-Tass reported that heavy fighting was still heard in central Argun.
The chief mediator for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is sponsoring the peace talks, pleaded for an end to the fighting. “There is a military agreement which must be observed,” diplomat Sandor Meszaros said.
Sergei A. Arutyunov, a scholar on the Caucasus, said the likelihood of any real peace is slim unless the Russians open parallel peace talks with some of the independent, belligerent Chechen factions that continue to skirmish with and snipe at Russian forces.
“It is very difficult to establish now to what degree Dudayev personally is in control” of the smaller rebel factions apparently responsible for the recent fighting, Arutyunov said, warning that the war may disintegrate into a series of private vendettas against Russian troops and power struggles among competing Chechen warlords.
Dmitri I. Makarov of the Argumenty i Facty newspaper suggested that Dudayev may be testing Russian resolve to see how Moscow would react to rebels moving back into areas such as Argun, where the bulk of Russian forces have now withdrawn.