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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Bomb Own Soldiers, Villagers

Just days before President Boris Yeltsin is to unveil his peace plan for Chechnya in a televised address to the nation, Russian forces have accidentally bombed their own troops and civilians, killing at least 10, in a Chechen village that had been designated an "island of peace" in the war-torn region.

General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, told Interfax that the bomb, which was dropped Thursday, had been unsanctioned.

"The command of the federal forces apologizes for the incident and expresses its condolences to the families of those killed," he said Friday.

The village, Katyr-Yurt, signed an agreement with Russian forces March 24 pronouncing it an "island of peace," under which the villagers agreed not to provide a base for rebels loyal to separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, and Moscow, in return, promised not to attack.

The United States condemned what it called indiscriminate and excessive military force being used by Russia in Chechnya.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States was "appalled" by the loss of life and injuries among non-combatants.

The incident highlights the difficulty Yeltsin now faces. With presidential elections just 11 weeks away, he has pledged to bring an end to the Chechen war, which is now considered the biggest obstacle standing in the way of his reelection.

Yeltsin will address the na withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechen territory and an end to the widescale military operation underway since early February.

The presidential plan was built around the negotiations underway in the republic, Grachev said. Military action alone could not bring a speedy resolution, he added, stressing that more social-economic aid should go to the pro-Moscow Chechen government of Doku Zavgayev.

According to Grachev, military operations will stop immediately after Yeltsin announces his plan. There will be a step-by-step withdrawal of those troops not taking part in special operations, he said.

Anatoly Shkirko, deputy interior minister and former commander of troops in Chechnya, commented in the same article that the peace plan calls for a strengthening of anti-terrorist measures against the Chechen rebels. Special operations would continue after the withdrawal of army troops, he said, since he expected "bandit raids, looting and acts of terror" to continue.

The daily newspaper Segodnya, quoting a Kremlin source, said Yeltsin's plan could offer a new agreement on Chechnya's status within Russia, local elections, and the extension of talks with selected field commanders to create secure zones or "islands of peace." Forceful means would still continue, the source said. But a complete withdrawal of Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry troops was not possible, the paper noted, so Yeltsin would not be able stop soldiers and civilians dying in Chechnya.

A spokeswoman for the Soldiers' Mothers Committee said all the mothers of servicemen were hoping first and foremost for Yeltsin to announce a cease-fire. After that they wanted peace talks, she said. "We want him to say no to war. All mums want that. The most important thing is to preserve lives and then hold talks," she said. Asked if she considered direct talks with Dudayev to be crucial, she said "the most crucial thing is the involvement of Yeltsin."

An opinion poll published Friday showed that more than half of the country favors direct talks between Yeltsin and Dudayev, Interfax reported.

The National Center for Public Opinion Studies said 57 percent of respondents in a survey of 1,600 people conducted over the last week said they were in favor of talks between the two men, while 28 percent were against, and 15 percent did not know.

Peace talks may be resumed again soon, Vladimir Zorin, former deputy head of the Russian administration installed in Grozny last year and now a deputy to the State Duma, told Interfax.

The talks could be mediated by the president of Tartarstan, Mintimer Shaimiyev, author of one of the peace plans put before Yeltsin last month, together with the OSCE, which sponsored the peace talks last summer, said Zorin.

Yeltsin's opponents, however, were ready with criticism even before the plan was revealed.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov complained about the plan's secrecy at a press conference Friday and offered his own solution.

Zyuganov called for a trilateral commission to be set up to work out ways to settle the conflict, with representatives from the government, the Duma and the Federation Council.

An amnesty should be offered to the fighters who disarm, he said, and "popular diplomacy" used by involving the Congress of North Caucasian Peoples.

Reformer and presidential hopeful Grigory Yavlinsky called the peace plan a "myth" at a press conference Thursday. "They are telling us fairy tales about some peace plans, while they have turned down all peace proposals."