Lebed under pressure as his troops quit Grozny
COLUMNS of Russian troops rumbled out of the Chechen capital of Grozny yesterday, most of them relieved to be going home after a humiliating defeat at the hands of the separatist fighters.
The Chechen rebels were jubilant, for they left the capital as clear victors. Official sources in Moscow announced that 2,000 Russian troops were killed, wounded or went missing during this month's battle for the city.
The Itar-Tass news agency reported that some 60 separatist fighters had left the city and were on their way to the southern region of Shali, as ordered by the rebel chief-of-staff Aslan Maskhadov. Another six groups of fighters were expected to leave by the end of the day.
Gen Alexander Lebed, who brokered the ceasefire, said that he would return to the region today or tomorrow to continue negotiations over a political settlement.
He will attend with or without the approval of President Yeltsin. The general warned that further delays in talks could disrupt the military accord which includes the pull-out of troops, a ceasefire and joint Russian-Chechen military patrols in Grozny.
Alexander Barkhatov, his spokesman, said: "A dangerous situation is developing, now that military agreements have been made, but there is no political basis for their successful execution." Aides to Mr Yeltsin said he was still studying the general's blueprint at his country residence, some 60 miles outside Moscow.
Whatever the real reasons behind Mr Yeltsin's silence, the Russian press is reacting with increasing cynicism
The Kremlin made no mention of a possible meeting between the two men, which Gen Lebed has been requesting over the last couple of days. Political observers are speculating that Mr Yeltsin has declined to meet his security adviser because he is either out of touch or waiting for Gen Lebed's plan to collapse.
Dariusz Rosati, Poland's Foreign Minister, suggested yesterday that Gen Lebed would be marginalised. "It is almost impossible to gain success in this," he was quoted as saying in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. "Leded has no diplomatic experience. Yeltsin sent him there to compromise him. This tactical manoeuvre also shows that in the ruling circle there is no unity of action."
Whatever the real reasons behind Mr Yeltsin's silence, the Russian press is reacting with increasing cynicism. The weekly Moskovskiye Novosti said: "Lebed needs presidential support for his plan, but the commander-in-chief, as it was announced, was on a reconnaissance mission for his holiday in Valdai."
Others suspect that the president is jealous of Gen Lebed's new image as peacemaker and does not want to endorse the plans if he is not given any credit for them. The newspaper Segodnya said: "Breaking the unwritten code of behaviour for officials and diplomats, [Lebed] is making a play to capture the romantic image of Yeltsin himself, an act which naturally incites the normal human, male reaction of jealousy in the president."
Britain announced yesterday it was giving a further =A3470,000 to help refugees, including health care, supplying clean water and sanitation to people displaced by the fighting in Grozny.
Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development, said: "We need to help the ordinary people caught up in this conflict." Britain has given a total of =A33.6 million to aid agencies working in the area.
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