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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ChechenLeaders Attacked In Convoy

GROZNY -- A day after two explosions rocked a convoy of Chechen rebel negotiators, the Russian-backed government in Grozny declared Wednesday that it will hold elections in defiance of a pre-election peace agreement, casting further doubts over the future of the truce.

The explosions came as the convoy was returning in triumph Tuesday from negotiations in the Ingush capital, Nazran, where the Chechens had secured a Russian pledge to withdraw troops by August and to cancel local and presidential elections planned for this weekend.

Nobody was killed in the blasts, but at least five people were injured and the attacks dampened the euphoria of Monday's peace deal, which was aimed at ending the 18-month-old conflict in which more than 30,000 people have died.

The attacks were the "work of those who are against the peace process," said Tim Guldimann, head of the Grozny mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. He had been traveling with the convoy and, although he escaped uninjured, the "You see what sort of peace they want?" said one fighter. The fighter then blamed the pro-Moscow Chechen government, whom he called "national traitors," who did not want Russia to withdraw its troops.

Chechen rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov pinned responsibility for the attacks on the head of the Grozny government, Doku Zavgayev, and Russian Security Council secretary Oleg Lobov. A Russian delegate to the talks blamed uncontrolled bands of Chechens.

Whoever detonated the mines, Zavgayev has made his hostility to the peace process evident, first by ordering Guldimann, who brokered the deal, out of the republic, and then by declaring Wednesday that elections will go forward despite the peace deal.

Holding the elections is expected by all sides to provoke violence, as it did during the parliamentary polls last December, when Chechen rebel forces responded by seizing two towns. But government officials defended the decision.

"On the 16th, the people themselves will decide if they want to take part or not. That is democracy, like in your country," Amin Osmayev, chairman of the Chechen Supreme Soviet, said Wednesday.

"We decided like this. We gathered the heads of the administrations, we gathered the candidates [for local parliament] ... and we consulted them," he said. Opinions were divided, he said "so we said 'let's decide like this. If people come to vote, the decision will have been correct, if they do not the decision will have been wrong.'"

Some 350 candidates for the 43 places in the People's Assembly gathered at the government building Wednesday and voted overwhelmingly to go ahead with the elections.

Amid the hubbub as the meeting broke up, Gennady Vitayev, who is standing for election in the Zavodsky district of Grozny, said he and many of the others felt it was essential to create some sort of legal power in the republic. "If elections do not go ahead the shooting will not decrease," he said.

But the Chechen rebels have said anyone who stands in the elections is a national traitor, the leaders of whom should be shot.

Monday's peace agreement, which Osmayev also signed as a member of the Russian delegation, stated it was "essential to hold free and democratic elections to the organs of state power of the Chechen Republic ... on completion of the troop withdrawal and demilitarization." The Chechen rebel leadership took this to mean that Sunday's local elections would be postponed since the pullzxout is to be completed by Aug. 31.

But asked if he was not going against the spirit of the peace agreement by holding elections, Osmayev said he saw no contradiction.

"It would be better to hold them after withdrawal and disarmament of the fighters. But why wait? No one is today obeying the agreement. Today terrorist acts continue," he said.

Voting would begin Friday, for a three-day poll in view of the unstable situation in Chechnya, the chairman of the electoral commission, Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov, said.

The elections, if they take place, are likely to be similar to the dangerous shambles of December's poll. "If the elections go ahead there will definitely be trouble. The Chechen delegation has been promising that for weeks," a source at the OSCE mission said.

The Grozny weekly newspaper, Groznensky Rabochy, carried a cartoon on its front page this week of three men desperately searching the horizons through telescopes and binoculars. "The polling stations are nowhere to be seen," one says to the others.

The paper's reporter, Lema Turpalov, was scathing about December's elections. "They were not elections. For a real election you need a card with your name and address, voting lists and lists of candidates, they had none of that," he said, sitting in his tiny, cramped office on Prospekt Revolyutsii. The situation was the same now, he said.

The Chechen government's move to hold elections was a mistake, but it was fighting for its survival, desperate to hang on to power and faced collapse with the withdrawal of Russian troops, he said.

"Zavgayev feels the ground falling away from under him," Turpalov said. "He could quit and go to Moscow, like his predecessor, but he has decided to stay and see. Maybe because he did that once already and refuses to give up power a second time."

Osmayev, who is standing in the elections, reacted testily to the suggestion that he was clinging to power. "What kind of power can it be when I live in different apartments every night, when I walk under bullets every day, when I am on death lists. What power, what are you talking about?" he said. "It is torture here, what is going on."

"There will never be a withdrawal of troops," he added. "All those who sat there and signed [the agreement], they did not believe in it, because there is no real process yet," he said, adding he meant both the Russian delegation members and the Chechen rebels.

The military working group did not meet as planned Wednesday because they did not achieve contact, said Captain Alexei Vasin, deputy head of the Russian forces press service at Khankala.

Nevertheless, the Russian withdrawal had started with the 245th regiment, from the Shatoi region in the mountainous central part of Chechnya, beginning their pull-out Tuesday, he said.