As hundreds of separatists stepped up a deadly offensive in the capital of Chechnya, President Boris N. Yeltsin and his Security Council agreed Thursday on the outline of a plan aimed at ending Russia's unpopular war in the breakaway republic before the June 16 presidential election.
Yeltsin described the plan as "a complex, step-by-step program" combining military force and financial incentives for pacified areas of Chechnya. He did not disclose the plan in full, saying it needed another week of work before being adopted and put into force.
Despite his defense minister's proposal to reopen talks with the separatist leadership, Yeltsin made no mention of such a step and in fact appeared to rule it out. Using Kremlin code often applied to rebel commanders, he said that "criminals who have been involved in murders and terrorist acts should be put on trial."
More than 20,000 people have died since Yeltsin dispatched the army to crush Chechnya's independence movement in December 1994. The president admitted last month that the war has become a quagmire that could sink his reelection bid, and the rebels' offensive was timed to show Yeltsin that he cannot get out without their cooperation.
Critics of the war said Thursday's plan, adopted after weeks of debate by two presidential panels, appears only to repackage old and failed policies. "The war will go on indefinitely if we do not take steps toward peace talks," warned Sergei N. Yushenkov, deputy chairman of parliament's security committee.
Some Kremlin aides doubt that any formula can end the war in a timely way. "There are extremely complex problems that cannot be resolved in a matter of five minutes, five days or even five months," said Arkady A. Popov, a consultant at the Presidential Analytical Center who helped draft the plan.
In recent days, however, Yeltsin has sounded overly confident and perhaps misled about events in Chechnya. Wednesday, as up to 800 rebels stormed Grozny, the Russian-ruled capital, he assured a group of political leaders that the war will be over by May. Thursday he insisted that Grozny "has been cleansed" of rebels.
In fact, Russian officials there said the rebel ranks had swollen Thursday to 1,500 fighters, who were occupying one-third of the city and holding 84 workers hostage.
Russia's Independent Television said the rebels also held the Interior Ministry headquarters, a hospital and a smaller clinic. Artillery blasts shook the city, while fires blazed at the heating plant, three water pumping stations and an oil pipeline--all sabotaged by separatist fighters.
Early today, a Russian troop convoy entered the center of Grozny, Itar-Tass news agency said. Officials of the pro-Moscow Chechen government said Thursday that Russian forces planned to launch a "clean-up" operation in the capital today.
At least 70 government troops have been killed in two days of fighting, the heaviest in Grozny in more than a year, Russian officials said. Rebel and civilian casualties were untallied but apparently high.
Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev, the Chechen independence leader, ordered the raid to retaliate for stepped-up Russian attacks on his forces.
In the latest assault, Russians shelled the town of Sernovodsk for three days this week after rebels tried to prevent local elders from signing a cooperation agreement with Doku Zavgayev, the Russian-appointed Chechen ruler in Grozny. At least 20 civilians were reportedly killed in the shelling.
The Kremlin's plan assigns a major peacemaking role to Zavgayev, who says he has struck cooperation deals with local leaders in 50 of Chechnya's 350 towns and villages. Yeltsin said Thursday that only those places that rid themselves of Chechen fighters will be eligible to receive $3.4 billion set aside for postwar reconstruction.
"We shall finance those areas where there are no more gangsters," the president said.
Yeltsin announced that the plan also has "a military program." That, according to Russian newspapers, involves a spring offensive to drive Dudayev's fighters deep into the Caucasus Mountains unless individual field commanders surrender and accept a government amnesty.
"Moscow's actions cannot be called graceful or refined," military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote this week in the Moscow newspaper Sevodnya. "They are once again trying to force the Chechens to make peace."