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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Withdrawal To Begin This Week

GROZNY -- Russian forces will begin their promised withdrawal from Chechnya later this week, their commander was reported as saying Monday, while the two sides exchanged lists of prisoners and civilians missing in action.

Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov said at a press conference in Grozny that the 245th Mechanized Infantry Regiment, one of the main federal army units in Chechnya, will begin to withdraw Friday.

He called the move unilateral, although a peace agreement between the two sides stipulates that the federal forces should complete withdrawal from the war-stricken republic by August.

Also in line with the agreement, Russians and Chechen separatists on Monday exchanged lists of prisoners and people who have disappeared during the 18-month war.

Interfax said the Russians turned a list of 1,089 names over to a joint commission on prisoners and MIAs. The Chechens listed 1,322 names.

But the progress belies the extremely muddled state of events in Chechnya, where the peace process seems to be edging forward only grudgingly. Nor was it clear how much progress had been made Monday. Previous "troop withdrawals" have often proved to be no more than routine troop rotations.

Negotiations Monday were on the prisoner exchange, at the main Russian base in Khankala on the southern ex rity and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, sat waiting for several hours in a private house until the Russian general was ready. "It was like waiting for the Queen of England," said one of the Chechens with him.

Maskhadov then drove up the road with Tim Guldimann, head of the Grozny mission for the OSCE, accompanied by a single unarmed bodyguard. He was followed by three carloads of armed fighters who quickly spread out, several hundred meters from the Russian tanks that stood in a semi-circle around the meeting place.

Only then did Tikhomirov arrive, flying in on a Mi-8 Russian helicopter, with a Soviet red star painted on its armored gray side. Guided in by an orange smoke signal, it whipped up the dust, sending the fighters on the road scurrying for cover. It landed on the road facing the Chechen fighters, then took off again, landing farther away, flanked by its own tanks. The four journalists present were ordered back behind the Chechen fighters by the Russian aides.

Tikhomirov, said a source close to Maskhadov "fears that what happened to [General Anatoly] Romanov will happen to him." Romanov was Tikhomirov's predecessor and conducted peace talks with the Chechens last year. He narrowly escaped death in a bomb attack and is still struggling to emerge from a coma.

It was not immediately clear if Tikhomirov's agreement to meet Friday signified a change of policy in Moscow after the ousting of three hardliners from the Yeltsin administration or merely a sop to keep the rebels quiet for another week until the elections.

Tikhomirov spoke for more than an hour with Maskhadov on Friday, the two generals sitting alone inside the OSCE car as a torrential thunderstorm clashed around them. Guldimann, who joined them for the last 10 minutes, said they appeared well-disposed to each other and agreed for the working group to start meeting the next day. But Saturday, Tikhomirov spoke of pursuing the war to the bitter end and again railed at Chechen infringements of the cease-fire.

"Tikhomirov is doing everything he can to twist things," Movlen Salachov, a close aide to former Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev and now an aide to Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, said Friday.

The feeling in the Chechen camp is that while Tikhomirov is in charge in Chechnya, peace talks will make little headway. He is being influenced by the head of the Moscow-appointed government in Chechnya, led by Doku Zavgayev, but also by people in Moscow who did not want talks with the rebels to succeed, Salachov said.

Even after the dismissal last week of Alexander Korzhakov, Mikhail Barsukov and Oleg Soskovets -- whom Salachov described as the "first authors of the war" -- there remain many others, he said. "I was at the talks with Yeltsin [on May 27]; it was clear the only one who wanted peace was Yeltsin. He needs peace. All the rest were not for peace," he said.