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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Premier Says Russia Set to Talk to Rebels

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Thursday the government is making contact with Chechen rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov and is ready to talk with Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the official successor to Dzhokhar Dudayev following his death on Sunday.

But Yandarbiyev, in a press conference in Chechnya, showed no immediate signs of reciprocal interest, vowing to carry on a holy war against the Russian Army to gain "just revenge."

Chernomyrdin, speaking to journalists during a congress of his Our Home Is Russia party, described Yandarbiyev and Maskhadov as "capable of influencing the political situation in the republic."

He indicated, however, that there would be no softening of Russian terms, saying, according to Interfax: "We will not change the presidential course toward a settlement of the crisis."

He said military commanders and Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov were establishing contacts with Maskhadov, Interfax reported, while Anatoly Denisov, an aide to State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, told Itar-Tass that contacts with Yandarbiyev could begin next week.

Russian Moslem Union head Nadyr Khachilayev said he had met Wednesday, at the request of the Russian authorities, with Chechen separatist representatives to discuss a possible resumption of talks, Interfax reported.

He said it was agreed that the two sides will soon discuss the time and place of talks, which, he added, will include Yandarbiyev, Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, the hardline rebel commander who led the hostage-taking raid on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk last June.

Chechen sources said Basayev had been picked to represent the rebel side in future negotiations, a move likely to be unacceptable to Moscow.

Chechen spokesman in Russia Vagap Tutakov told Interfax that Yandarbiyev took his decision to name Basayev negotiator right after Dudayev's death. An official in Chechnya's Kremlin-backed government who declined to be named told Interfax that Basayev was the "eminence grise" behind Yandarbiyev.

Russian press reports have focused on Yandarbiyev, Maskhadov and Basayev as the preeminent Chechen separatist figures in the wake of Dudayev's death.

Maskhadov is widely viewed as the most flexible of the three on the question of Chechen autonomy. Dudayev had vowed to agree to nothing short of full independence, which President Boris Yeltsin has ruled non-negotiable.

Yandarbiyev sounded a hard line at the Thursday press conference, which took place at a secret location in Chechnya's Urus Martan region. He vowed that the rebels will carry on their independence drive and avenge Dudayev's death.

"With firm purpose to return peace to the Chechen people, and in the name of that peace, I will take the lead in the war, in a jihad in the name of Allah and the freedom of the Chechen people," he said as he sat under a portrait of a smiling Dudayev.

"From the moment I took over I've been under pressure from field commanders and people demanding revenge," Reuters quoted him as saying.

"I ordered them to control that mood ... so that a just revenge against the organizers and perpetrators of this act can be carried out under our command without harming peaceful people."

Basayev reportedly gave an address on rebel television Monday, in which he eulogized Dudayev and promised to wage war "not for 50 years, as Dudayev required, but for 100 years," Interfax reported.

Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, speaking from Beijing, where he is accompanying Yeltsin on an official visit to China, said the president had ordered "the heads of all power structures to take every measure to prevent a possible outbreak of terrorism by Chechen fighters" under the pretext of avenging Dudayev, Interfax reported.

He said that Federal Security Service (FSB) forces and special military units, including anti-terrorist airborne units, should be used to supplement Interior Ministry forces.

No information on security measures was available from either the FSB or the Interior Ministry, but a spokesman for the Moscow police said no new security measures have been introduced.

Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov told Interfax Thursday that Dudayev's death may speed up the peace process, but warned that there "are irreconcilable field commanders in whose detachments there are largely mercenaries from countries in the far-abroad."

Army sources said Thursday that a rebel unit operating in northern Chechnya included Jordanian and Saudi nationals, the news agency reported.

In a separate statement Thursday, Kulikov gave what appeared to be the first official Russian government confirmation of Dudayev's death.

"The information we have at the present moment confirms the fact of Dzhokhar Dudayev's death," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying.

Some press reports have said Dudayev was killed in a special military operation using aviation and precision guided munitions that tracked down the rebel leader while he was using his satellite telephone.

Duma Deputy Konstantin Borovoi said he had been talking to Dudayev for about four minutes Sunday night when "the line suddenly went dead," Reuters reported. He said Dudayev had been complaining about the noise of Russian planes before the connection was broken.

Chernomyrdin said he could not say whether the Russian military was responsible for Dudayev's death, but asked whether there was a plan to kill the Chechen leader, he replied, "What nonsense."

General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, has denied that the Russian military was involved in Dudayev's killing.

Itar-Tass quoted a Yeltsin aide as saying Dudayev's death was the "work of God looking after Russia and its president as well."

Others agreed that the separatist leader's passing may ultimately work in Yeltsin's favor.

Dmitry Volkov, a political commentator with the daily Segodnya, said: "I think that Dudayev's death strengthens Yeltsin's hand. It does open a way to reach meaningful agreement over Chechnya ... Because, Basayev or no Basayev, the most authoritative guy -- not in romantic terms, but in practical terms -- is Maskhadov, who has previously shown himself" to be amenable to negotiations.

Sergei Markov of the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said a fragmentation of the rebel leadership "will help Moscow to play its game more effectively."

Others suggested that Dudayev's death will also help Yeltsin's bid for re-election.

"Yeltsin can write off all the failures of his peace plan to the fact there is no leader on the other side and that he must wait for a new leader to emerge," said Viktor Kremenyuk of the Russian Academy of Sciences' USA/Canada Institute.

He added, however, that a major Chechen terrorist attack, either on Russian forces or on civilian targets beyond Chechnya's borders, would "raise the question whether Mr. Yeltsin is at all relevant to putting an end to the war."