Russia

Lebed Declares Bloody 20-Month War Over

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By DAVE CARPENTER

GROZNY, Russia (AP) - Security chief Alexander Lebed declared an end Saturday to Russia's disastrous war in Chechnya, saying Chechen separatists had agreed to suspend their demand for independence for five years.

"The war is over," Lebed proclaimed from Khasavyurt, a village south of Grozny where he concluded the peace deal with top rebel leaders, the Interfax news agency said.

The agreement's mention of the possibility of Chechen independence goes farther than any previous deal in the bloody 20-month-old war, and appears to commit Russia to addressing the question five years from now.

"I can tell the soldiers' mothers that soldiers and innocent civilians won't die on Chechen territory," Maskhadov said at the end of nearly nine hours of negotiations.

Lebed had been expected to offer Chechnya a greater degree of autonomy within Russia in addition to postponing a final decision on its political status.

The peace agreement follows a truce Lebed negotiated last week. Under that pact, Russian troops have been withdrawing from the Chechen mountains and Grozny, which the rebels overran this month.

Top Kremlin figures had approved the proposal that Lebed took to the rebels, although it was not known how much the terms were changed during negotiations. Previous agreements to halt fighting in the republic have collapsed, with both rebel fighters and the military sometimes reluctant to follow their leaders' pledges.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the new agreement alters Chechnya's current status, or whether it sets a specific mechanism for the decision on Chechnya's independence.

Interfax said the Chechen delegation cheered Lebed after the signing ceremony.

Chechnya, a mostly Muslim region in southern Russia, declared independence in 1991; the war started when President Boris Yeltsin sent in troops to force the rebels back under Moscow's control. Fighting since then has killed an estimated 30,000 people.

The degree of Moscow's support for the new agreement was unclear, and there was no immediate statement from the Kremlin.

In the past, Yeltsin has said he will not let Chechnya secede.

Interfax reported the Russian pullout from Grozny and mountain regions would be complete Saturday. Only about 1,500 Russian troops remained in the city as of Friday night.

An official with the Russian general staff said 11,000 servicemen were now concentrated at five bases outside the city.

About 250 fighters from each side will stay in the devastated capital on joint patrols established to enforce the truce and maintain order.

"Today we can say with satisfaction that the military agreement we have signed earlier has been observed unfailingly," Lebed said earlier in the day.

The former general said he'd spoken with Yeltsin by telephone, but refused to say whether the president approved his plan.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Friday the plan was "coordinated" with the president.

Yeltsin has maintained a public silence on the peace proposal despite increasing pressure to end the unpopular war. Aides say the president, who is on vacation at a hunting lodge outside Moscow, had studied Lebed's proposals.

Yeltsin has distanced himself from his security chief - as he often does with underlings handling a particularly controversial task - ever since putting Lebed in charge of resolving the Chechen conflict on Aug. 10.