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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ambush Halts Russian Pullout

Russian troops suspended their withdrawal from Chechnya on Friday after a bloody ambush by rebels wiped out a military convoy this week, bringing the battered presidential peace plan to a virtual halt.

The Russian commander in Chechnya, Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, said a "line has been crossed" by the rebels, and his forces could no longer refrain from shelling civilian areas where the rebels had established bases.

Speaking on Russian television, he also suggested there was little point to efforts to start indirect talks with rebel leaders because it would "give them an impression that they are doing things right."

Doku Zavgayev, leader of the pro-Moscow government in Grozny, said the planned withdrawal of troops to Chechnya's border had stopped because of Tuesday's ambush. Speaking to reporters in Grozny, he gave the latest casualty figures for the ambush as 76 dead and 54 wounded, Itar-Tass reported, making it one of the worst incidents for the Russian army in the last year.

As details emerged of the scale of Russian casualties, President Boris Yeltsin, preparing to wel and a phased troop withdrawal, though heavy fighting has persisted.

He was quick to cast the blame elsewhere. "The military leadership is to blame and will be taken to account for the tragedy," he said in remarks reported by Itar-Tass.

State Duma deputies hurled criticism at the military commanders but also at the political leadership.

The ambush was "one more link in the chain of bloody events, resulting from irresponsibility of the military commanders and an inadmissible attitude to the army on the part of the country's top leaders," said a statement adopted overwhelmingly by the Duma.

Calling for a day of mourning, deputies asked the Prosecutor General's Office to open a criminal investigation into the deaths of the servicemen and demanded Defense Minister Pavel Grachev to report to the parliament.

Grachev admitted security measures for the convoy had been violated and even offered to resign.

"If you, people's deputies, believe that all disgraceful happenings which are now taking place in the country and the casualties which federal forces are suffering hinge solely on the person of the defense minister, I am ready to resign even now," he said, Interfax reported.

The commander of 245th Motor-Rifle Regiment had been dismissed and would face criminal proceedings, Interfax quoted him as telling the deputies.Grachev, giving lower casualty figures, said of the 199 servicemen in the convoy, 53 died and 52 were wounded. Media reports have put the figure as high as 93 dead.

About 200 Chechen fighters attacked the convoy of 30 vehicles at 2 p.m. Tuesday near the village of Yarysh-Mardi in Shatoi district of southern Chechnya, Grachev said.

Helicopters and tanks were sent to the rescue, but fighting continued for three hours, Grachev said. Two-thirds of the column was destroyed.

The troop withdrawal had only begun Monday, just five days before the suspension. Two Interior Ministry battalions pulled out Monday from a peaceful area of northeastern Chechnya to neighboring Dagestan.

The Russian command had promised the withdrawal of another six battalions this week.

Yeltsin called the attack a "planned provocation," and claimed the convoy was carrying peaceful cargo, namely medicines and food. "Now it is clear who wants peace and who wants war," he said.

The Shatoi district was peaceful and had been the first region to sign peace agreements with federal forces, he said, Interfax reported.

Yeltsin said nevertheless he was still in favor of the peace plan and reaching a settlement through negotiations. Yeltsin has offered to hold indirect talks with separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev and has sent a message to King Hassan II of Morocco about his participation as a mediator in talks, Itar-Tass reported Friday from the Moroccan capital Rabat. But Yeltsin also said military efforts to repulse "bandit attacks" would continue.

"We cannot sit with our arms folded," Yeltsin said. "We were against the proposal to withdraw all our troops from Chechnya," he said.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, appointed by Yeltsin to oversee the Chechen peace plan, promised a similar strong response to rebel attacks.

Instructing the defense and interior ministries to ensure safe movement of troops in Chechnya, he said all means to destroy separatist rebels could be used to prevent losses among federal troops, Interfax reported Friday.

Russian planes, which have not let up their bombing raids since Yeltsin's announcement of his peace plan, crossed Chechnya's western border Friday, striking the Ingush village of Arshty. The daylight bombing killed 10 people and injured 25, Itar-Tass reported, quoting local officials.

Russian bombing and shelling attacks were heard in the region of Bamut, a well-defended Chechen village in western Chechnya, Interfax said.

Interfax described the atmosphere in southwest Chechnya as "very tense," Friday. Separatist rebels were moving freely through Shatoi district, scene of Tuesday's ambush, a military official said. Rebels also attacked federal positions in Elistanzhi further east. No casualties were reported.