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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Rule Out Early Withdrawal

GEKHI, Chechnya -- Russian forces said Tuesday they were sticking to President Boris Yeltsin's plan to end their offensive in Chechnya but ruled out an early troop withdrawal as they shelled rebel strongholds.

The sound of artillery fire came from Orekhovo and Bamut in the foothills of southwest Chechnya. People in nearby Gekhi said the Russians had also used planes and helicopters against rebels holed up in the two villages.

Refugees were reported to be fleeing other villages in the southeast after the Russians were said to have attacked them with multiple-launch "Grad" rockets.

Yeltsin, who is also campaigning for the June 16 presidential election, ordered a halt Sunday to almost 16 months of "military operations" and said a stage-by-stage withdrawal of troops from stable regions of Chechnya was beginning.

But, aware that the rebels were unlikely to give up their fight for independence, he promised to hit back hard against "terrorist actions."

On Monday a spokesman for rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev dismissed the plan as a pre-election stunt, and the head of Russian land forces in Chechnya told Itar-Tass that troops could not be withdrawn yet.

"The withdrawal of military units from remote regions of Chechnya to its administrative border and beyond is scheduled to start no earlier than the end of April," the agency said, quoting the commander, Vladimir Semyonov.

About 80 percent of the forces would eventually be pulled out, but some interior and defense ministry troops would remain behind in Grozny, he said.

Interfax quoted Russian forces as saying there had been no active military operations in Chechnya overnight but that rebels had attacked their checkpoints in Grozny eight times.

It later said Russian troops had killed three dozen rebels who had tried to recapture Orekhovo in a dawn raid.

Russia's deputy commander in Chechnya, Major General Stanislav Kondratyev, said there had been no losses on his side. "Federal forces will continue special operations to stave off territorial sorties by the armed [rebel] groups in line with the president's order," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Kondratyev said such operations were going on in the Nozhai-Yurt region in the southeast, but did not explain what they involved.

Itar-Tass quoted the regional administrator in nearby Shali as saying refugees were flooding down from the mountains after villages were attacked by Grad rockets Monday night.

Dudayev's spokesman, Movladi Udugov, said real peace could not come to Chechnya until the troops had been withdrawn.

"All the political steps taken by the Russian side can be no more than pre-election action with the aim of raising Yeltsin's authority and making him Russian president for a second term," Udugov told Ekho Moskvy radio.

He said Dudayev had, as yet, no answer to Yeltsin's offer of indirect talks but rejected an offer of mediation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"They can't even leave Grozny without permission from the Russian checkpoints," he said.

Many of those fighting on the ground on both sides rate the chances of Dudayev and Yeltsin making peace as slim. The two men hold incompatible views on Chechnya's status.

Dudayev's fighters say they will not surrender until they have driven from their Caucasus homeland a force they see as a foreign invader.