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Yeltsin, Chechens Agree to Truce

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Boris N. Yeltsin and Chechen separatist leaders agreed Monday to halt all military hostilities as of Saturday--two weeks before the Russian leader faces voters in a tough reelection bid.

During the talks, the only time Yeltsin has met face to face with rebel leaders since the conflict in Chechnya began 17 1/2 months ago, the parties also agreed to release all prisoners within two weeks.

“We have solved the main question of peace in Chechnya. This is a historic day,” Yeltsin, 65, told journalists after the Russian and separatist Chechen leaders signed the accord in the banquet room of the president’s Kremlin residence.

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As he sat down across the table from rebel leader Zelimkhan A. Yanderbiyev for the three-hour session, Yeltsin was plainly aware of the deep scar that the war with the breakaway republic has seared in his public image.

Yeltsin’s steadfast refusal to meet with Dzhokar M. Dudayev--the previous leader of the Chechen independence movement, who was killed last month in a Russian missile attack--was seen as a major obstacle to ending the fighting. Dudayev’s death, and the pressure of the Russian presidential race, together prodded Yeltsin to negotiate this cease-fire personally.

The Russian president announced the Kremlin talks Friday but later specified that they would focus only on the military aspects of the conflict. The thornier question of Chechnya’s independence was not on the table.

Yeltsin sent his army to the tiny, mostly Muslim republic in southern Russia in December 1994 to quell the independence movement. Despite a large-scale commitment of Russian troops and heavy military equipment, he failed to crush the rebels. Russian and Chechen separatist leaders last summer negotiated a cease-fire similar to Monday’s agreement. But it broke down in the autumn because of mistrust between the sides, and fighting resumed.

The protracted fighting has cost as many as 30,000 lives--most of them civilians--and dealt a heavy blow to the Russian people’s confidence in Yeltsin. Opinion polls show Chechnya weighs more heavily on voters’ minds than any other issue, so Monday’s agreement is expected to prove popular with Russians and improve Yeltsin’s chances against Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate and Yeltsin’s prime challenger in the June 16 election.

“This meeting is very, very good for Yeltsin’s presidential campaign,” said Alexi N. Zakharov, deputy director of the Center for Political Studies in Moscow.

Russian Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, who had scoffed at the news of the negotiations, greeted word of Monday’s accord warmly. But some analysts expressed doubts about whether Yanderbiyev can ensure that Chechen field commanders, a mixed lot, will abide by it. Details of the agreement were expected to be worked out in meetings of technical experts today.

Both parties were acutely aware of the political stakes riding on Monday’s meeting.

Speaking in Grozny, the Chechen capital, before his departure for Moscow, the bearded Yanderbiyev, clad in camouflage, told the Itar-Tass news service: “We shall offer Russia an option in the negotiations that will enable the war to end and the great power to save face.”

As gestures of goodwill, both sides declared three-day cease-fires Monday for the duration of the peace talks in Moscow. It was unclear if military action had ceased Monday in the mountainous Caucasus republic.

When Yeltsin announced the negotiations, there was concern about whether Russian troops would comply with any cease-fire, because Grachev said he opposed the idea and argued that the only way to end the conflict was for the rebel forces to be “totally annihilated.”

But on Monday, he did an abrupt about-face and embraced the peace talks. “I know about the attempts of certain forces to play the so-called military card on the eve of the election. They want to create an impression that certain hawk-generals object to negotiations of the Russian leader with the leader of the Chechen armed opposition,” Grachev told Interfax news service. “The army supports the initiative of the Russian president, the supreme commander in chief, the same as all citizens of Russia.”

Grachev said the army is ready to withdraw from Chechnya.

Yanderbiyev also told Russian leaders after the Kremlin negotiations that he was confident his troops would follow his order to cease hostilities. Rebel field commanders met last week and endorsed the recent peace talks unanimously, dropping an earlier condition that Dudayev’s killers be brought to justice.

By agreeing to attend the talks, despite Yeltsin’s condition that Chechen independence would not be discussed, the rebel leaders were clearly indicating their eagerness to reach a resolution. At least one reason for their willingness was a successful Russian offensive Saturday, during which the Russian army seized Bamut, a former Soviet missile base that was the last rebel stronghold, after weeks of fierce battles.

Analysts said the brevity of the Kremlin negotiations reflected how exhausted both sides were from the grueling war and how determined they were to find a way out, at least for the short term.

“Both sides must be satisfied with the outcome,” said Dmitry I. Makarov, head of the ethnic relations department of the popular weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakty. “The speed with which the accord was reached spared the country boring reports of long and difficult negotiations and gave President Yeltsin a lot of momentum for his sweeping campaign.

“The Chechen leaders need time to breathe too,” Makarov added. “They have recently suffered serious military setbacks, and the loss of Bamut placed them on the verge of final military defeat. They need some time of peace to lick their wounds.”

But some analysts said the effect of Monday’s accord on voters will not be what Yeltsin hopes for because it was such a blatant political ploy.

“Now, three weeks before the election, this looks very much like a campaign measure rather than a serious peace offer,” said Dzhabrail Z. Vachagayev, a Chechen who is a professor at the Moscow-based Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology.

“Of course, it is great to hear that, for once, they are talking and not shooting. Every normal citizen would hail such an effort if it didn’t appear to be dictated totally by political necessity for both sides.”

In recent weeks, Yeltsin had talked about his intention of going to Chechnya himself, saying he alone could force the sides to sit down and talk. It was unclear whether he still intends to visit the republic before the election.


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