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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Make Key Concessions In Talks

GROZNY -- Chechen negotiators made substantial concessions Thursday at talks in Grozny aimed at bringing peace to the breakaway republic, including an agreement that rebel fighters would disarm in return for a partial withdrawal of Russian troops.


The Chechen concessions prompted both sides to issue a triumphant statement that the conflict could be peacefully resolved, but fighters in mountain hideaways hold the key to whether the six-month conflict comes to a peaceful end and there were already signs of trouble ahead.


"All participants are firmly convinced that there are no questions which cannot be resolved at the negotiating table," said the statement, read out by Vladimir Zorin, representing the administration installed in the region by Moscow.


The Chechens also agreed to help find and hand over Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who led a terrorist raid on Budyonnovsk in southern Russia that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 civilians.


But the military protocol, including a pledge by the rebels to give up their weapons in exchange for a partial Russian withdrawal, an exchange of prisoners and a demilitarized zone, would come into force only after a broader deal on economic and political issues is signed.


The Chechens had so far insisted that Russia pull out all its forces as a precondition to any disarmament deal.


Finding a political solution will be difficult given Russia's view of Chechnya as an integral part of the Russian Federation and a unilateral Chechen~ declaration of independence.


Rebel fighters, driven to the mountains by Russian troops in six months of bloody warfare, may also reject any agreement and fight on against the Russian soldiers they view as invaders, while even the negotiators seemed equivocal on whether they would really hand over Basayev.


Sergei Medvedev, spokesman for President Boris Yeltsin, accused the Chechens of violating agreements reached at the negotiating table.


"I think good guidelines to achieving real peace in Chechnya have been set out, but all the agreements reached in the past, including the most recent ones, have been broken, and not by the federal forces," he said.


Reporters who visited rebel detachments Thursday said some of the splintered groups were clearly ready to take their struggle back to the Russian heartland, after the commando-style assault on Budyonnovsk.


"They say four more actions have been prepared, on a scale no smaller than Budyonnovsk," said Andrei Babitsky, a reporter with Radio Liberty, quoting one of the Chechen fighters who helped plan the raid.


Participants at the talks condemned the five-day Budyonnovsk raid, in which Interfax reported Thursday that the official death toll had risen to 121.


"The war is not needed by either the Russian or the Chechen peoples," the statement said. "The participants to the talks condemned terrorism and all forms of sabotage and expressed profound regret over events in Budyonnovsk."


Basayev had insisted throughout the assault that he was acting independently of rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.


The Chechen negotiators said they would hunt down Basayev and bring him to justice, helping to smooth out an apparent clash between the head of the Russian team, Colonel General Anatoly Kulikov, and the government in Moscow on Wednesday.


Kulikov had given the Chechens an ultimatum to agree to hand Basayev over within three days, saying he would otherwise end the cease-fire immediately. But he was promptly rebuked by a government spokesman, who said Kulikov had no authority to break the cease-fire.


The Basayev issue is far from resolved, however. After making their pledge, the top Chechen negotiator, Uslam Imayev, and Aslan Maskhadov, the rebels' military leader, climbed onto a jeep surrounded by a crowd of mostly Chechen women Thursday and told the crowd that Basayev was a Chechen national hero.


"The whole Chechen people, the leaders of Chechnya are ready to die to prevent a single hair dropping from Shamil Basayev's head," Maskhadov said. "Basayev is our Chechen warrior."


The Chechen negotiators were defiant as they left for a scheduled break at noon.


"Do you really think we made concessions?" asked Imayev. "The Russians have been waging war for 191 days. We are satisfied with the course of the talks. Both sides made concessions."


Tens of thousands of people -- civilians, Russian soldiers and Chechen rebels -- have been killed since Russia sent troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 to crush an independence bid.