. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighters Skeptical as Cease-Fire Holds Firm

GROZNY -- The jury was still out on General Alexander Lebed in Chechnya Friday. Chechen fighters professed skepticism about his ability to pull off a change in direction for Kremlin policy even if he was sincere.


"I do not trust him," said Alik Tsagayev, a fighter guarding the road in from the west to Grozny. "There is no difference between him and [former defense minister Pavel] Grachev. He has not kept his word. He promised to stop the planes, that not one would take off, but they bombed the village of Komsomolskoye on Wednesday evening," he said.


Nevertheless, the cease-fire agreed informally on Lebed's initiative to start at noon Wednesday appeared to be holding well Friday.


Stray bursts of gunfire occasionally rang out in the city and at half-hourly intervals the loud explosion of an incoming mortar would resound. One exploded on an oil storage facility, starting a huge fire with a large cloud of black smoke.


"I think Lebed really wants to end the war and I think it is a sincere decision and the right one," said Aslanbek Ismailov, the second-in-command of the Chechen operation in Grozny, sitting in his headquarters in southern Grozny underneath a large military map which marked every Russian bloc post and district headquarters in Grozny.


His fighters, relaxing in the courtyard playing Chechen music on a portable stereo, were not concerned with Kremlin machinations and Lebed's chances of striking a deal for Chechnya.


"We are back home and that is all that matters. We are not going anywhere and we do not intend to leave again," said one, who is known by his nickname Pirate because he lost an eye in a restaurant shoot-out. "Any deal with Moscow would have to come after a complete withdrawal of Russian troops," he said.


Russian soldiers and Chechen civilians were more optimistic.


"Hope dies last and we do not have anything left but hope," said Azza Salazhuyeva, 55, a teacher of Russian literature in Grozny.


"We think it is positive," said Lieutenant Mikhail Bogachenko, 32, an OMON Interior Ministry officer from Kemerovo, in charge of a checkpoint west of Grozny.


"Lebed is popular, there is no question. But the time is such that we have to wait and see," he said. "He needs to create the right conditions; the leadership had not been changed and he had to come down and see things for himself," he said. Carrying a sprig of cow-parsley, which he described as a symbol of peace, in the top of his rifle, he said the Russians should pull out and leave the Chechens to sort themselves out on their own.


His words echoed those of Aslan Maskhadov, the chief of Chechen forces, who described Lebed earlier this week as the only man in the Russian government who was not stained with "the blood of the Chechen people and the blood of Russian soldiers."


Speaking to the German television company ARD on Wednesday, Maskhadov said Lebed was capable of holding real talks with the Chechens that could bring an end to hostilities and to the war. But he warned of a "criminal game" that threatened Lebed's position and the success of his mission in Chechnya.


"Even today if we have definite trust in Lebed, we do not have trust that the Russian leadership will not hinder him, and they are hindering him, and that nothing will come of this," he said.