Lobov in Grozny, Urges Disarmament

GROZNY -- President Boris Yeltsin's newly appointed personal envoy to Chechnya on Monday urged rebels to speed up disarmament as Moscow mulled tactics for ending more than eight months of fighting in the rebel region.

Oleg Lobov, secretary of Russia's policy-making Security Council, said after meeting Russian forces and Chechen community and religious leaders in the regional capital Grozny that disarmament was proceeding too slowly.

If the hand-over of arms, agreed in a military accord signed by both sides in July did not speed up, it would be impossible to hold planned elections in the region later this year.

"There can be no elections at gunpoint ... The disarmament agreement is the condition which can open the door to free elections," Lobov told a news conference.

Chechen fighters, however, have expressed skepticism about the Russian side and its readiness to keep its part of the deal for disengagement.

Lobov told local leaders disarmament was the prime task in Chechnya and that nobody wanted a return to conflict.

"Everyone unites around this and nobody supports the use of force but the danger of a return to this still exists if disarmament is not full and voluntary," he said.

Lobov said an expert group had already been working in the region to prepare for a council meeting Wednesday.

In Moscow, Yeltsin and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov discussed, among other topics, ways to settle the Chechen conflict, Yeltsin's press service said. Yeltsin also met Foreign Intelligence Service director Yevgeny Primakov.

The Security Council meeting is expected to discuss possible changes to policy in Chechnya, where thousands have been killed since Russian troops poured into the region last December to crush a three-year independence drive.

Lobov, who is scheduled to leave Chechnya on Tuesday, did not meet Monday with a negotiating team representing rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, citing an unwillingness on the rebel side to meet, Interfax reported. Lobov said he would meet with a delegation "if there is the will from their side."

Peace talks, launched in June, have so far failed to produce a decision on Chechnya's future status -- the issue at the heart of the highly unpopular conflict.

Moscow insists Chechnya must remain part of Russia and neither side has shown a willingness to compromise.

"There can be no two opinions about political status," Lobov said. "I can take part in any kind of talks but only within the framework of the Russian state and constitution."

Itar-Tass said one Russian soldier was killed and another was wounded in clashes over the past 24 hours.

Lieutenant General Anatoly Romanov, Russia's top military commander in the region, said the rebel surrender of arms seemed to be picking up.