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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Begin Arms Handover

GROZNY -- Chechen fighters made a small start Wednesday of handing over their weapons and a Russian commander said troop withdrawals from the breakaway republic had begun, offering the first signs that a stalled peace agreement in the war-ravaged republic may be getting underway.

The largely symbolic handover took place in the village of Zandak, in the Nozhai-Yurt district about 60 kilometers from Grozny, just a day after President Boris Yeltsin had threatened to restart the war unless Chechen fighters began to disarm in accordance with a July 30 peace agreement.

Monitored by the deputy commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, Major General Yevgeny Skobelev, Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov and the mission chief for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Grozny, Sandor Meszaros, the handover was hailed as a small victory for peace.

"It shows that the people who are really involved in the peace process are beginning," Meszaros said, adding that fighters in the village handed over 47 light weapons.

An Interfax reporter on the scene in Zandak, near the border with Dagestan, said the arms surrendered included 23 assault rifles, one smaller- and two large-caliber machine guns, 18 land mines, 6 missiles, 6 grenade launchers, a Strela anti-aircraft system and 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

After a series of threats and ultimatums from Moscow, warning that the "toughest measures" would be taken, it was not clear how far Wednesday's ceremony would go to satisfy the Kremlin.

Nor was it clear whether Russian troops had begun withdrawing from Chechnya as promised in the agreement, which at the time was hailed by Yeltsin as a "historic" breakthrough. Skobelev, however, said some troops had begun to withdraw from the front lines and some Russian posts had been abandoned, Interfax reported.

After the fighters had handed in their weapons, 17 were given back for use by the "self-defense units" that are to remain in Chechen villages according to the peace deal.

Officials from both sides said similar events were to take place in the districts of Shali, Vedeno and Gudermes, according to Interfax. But in the Chechen capital, reaction to Wednesday's handover of weapons was muted.

"A process is going on in Zandak according to the agreement," Chechen fighter Moscow would keep its word and withdraw the tens of thousands of troops now stationed in Chechnya. Two of Dudayev's presidential guards, posted outside the OSCE headquarters in Grozny, said they had no intention of handing over their weapons until the last Russian soldier has left Chechnya.

But Basayev distinguished between the politicians in Moscow and the negotiators in Chechnya, in particular the commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, General Anatoly Romanov.

"I have lost faith that Russian forces will go," Basayev said. "If the people at the top who signed this agreement, who agreed to solve everything by peaceful means only, are now making threats ...

"But Romanov is a man who sees that," he added, dismissing the tough talk from Moscow as "politics."

Basayev said he had seen the 503rd regiment, one of two Russian regiments based near his home village of Vedeno, leave the area. "They may be leaving or they may send another," he said.

As he spoke outside the OSCE building, a row of Russian tanks, armor and trucks roared past on the road north out of town. Some of the soldiers shouted "homeward." Basayev said the column represented a whole division of Interior Ministry troops and dispatched some of his men in a car to follow the column.

His action raised no eyebrows in Grozny, where Chechen fighters attached to the delegation now move freely around the city, although Basayev said checkpoints on the edge of town consistently stop them.

Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, however, there were sporadic exchanges of gunfire between Russian and Chechen forces, mostly in Grozny, in which eight Russian servicemen were wounded, Interfax reported. There was no word on Chechen casualties.

Meanwhile there are tentative plans for a prisoner exchange in Grozny on Thursday, Basayev said. He gave no details and acknowledged that the two sides had still not accepted each others' lists of detainees.Both sides appear to be playing down the number of prisoners they hold. The Russian delegation has said it only holds 141 Chechen prisoners of the 1,320 odd that have passed through their filtration camps during the seven-month war.

Basayev said Wednesday that the Chechens have compiled a list of 1,308 Chechens who have been reported detained in addition to the 141.

For their part, the Chechens say they have nine Russian prisoners, although the Russian side estimates they are holding 54 of the 250 Russian servicemen officially missing in action.