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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Press for Early Pullout

NAZRAN, Southern Russia -- Chechen rebel leaders laid down tough demands at talks with a top-level Russian delegation Wednesday, calling for an early withdrawal of Russian troops and threatening new fighting if their requests were not met.

But the rebels, describing their offer as a compromise, said they were ready to forgo immediate demands for independence, the basis for their 18-month-old conflict against Russia's troops, until "the people" had a chance to vote on the region's status.

"We do not have any doubt about the status of Chechnya as a free and independent country, but we are ready in the name of peace to ask the Chechen people what form of association they want with Russia," said negotiator Said-Hassan Abumuslimov, new vice president to rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

"We are offering a big compromise, beyond which we will not go. This is the minimum we can accept."

The status of the North Caucasus region, which declared itself independent in 1991, is the trickiest of a series of problems dividing the two sides in the conflict. More than 30,000 people have died since Russia sent troops to the region in December 1994 and President Boris Yeltsin, fighting for re-election this month, admits that efforts to resolve the conflict are important for his chances.

But rebel Chechens attending the talks said the fighting could start again if Russia did not meet their terms -- closing military checkpoints within days, withdrawing troops by July 1 and postponing June 16 elections to a regional parliament.

Chechen information chief Movladi Udugov said documents being presented by Chechnya could "bring an end to the war" if they were agreed upon by both sides. But he added: "If they are not, it will mean a continuation of the war."

The atmosphere was several degrees less frosty than when the talks opened Tuesday. Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zorin laughed and joked as he left the talks for a lunch break.

"How everything comes out depends on Allah and the people who carry out his preferences," he said.

The two sides met for talks in Moscow last week and they have already agreed to a cease-fire in the rebel region.

But overnight gunfire and explosions in the regional capital Grozny illustrated the fragility of the truce and each side has accused the other of violating the agreement. Sustained small arms and heavy machine-gun fire erupted in the center of the city around midnight and flares and tracer rounds lit Grozny's streets.

Itar-Tass said Russian troops had come under fire 11 times overnight and two servicemen were hurt.

Abumuslimov, speaking during a break in the Nazran talks, said the rebels were divided into those who wanted further talks with Yeltsin and those who favored waiting to see if Yeltsin's communist rival wins the June 16 poll. "There is the feeling that perhaps the communists are no better, but it would be easier to deal with them because they were not guilty of starting the war," he said.

?The notorious Chechen warlord Ruslan Labazanov and two of his bodyguards were killed by a third guard last Friday, Chechen authorities confirmed Wednesday. Labazanov, a thickset man with a brutal reputation, insulted the bodyguard who had tried to stop him beating up one of his gunmen for drinking, Interfax reported.

Once a supporter of the late president Dzhokhar Dudayev, Labazanov joined the pro-Moscow opposition and last year was made a nominative colonel in the Russian Army and was said to work for the Federal Security Service. He was killed in his home, a mock fortress staffed by heavily armed guards, in the village of Tolstoi-Yurt.