Russia

Russia, Rebels Continue Fight

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By ROBERT KING Associated Press Writer

GROZNY, Russia (AP) -- Russian troops battled Chechen separatists in Grozny for an eighth day Tuesday, despite assurances from Boris Yeltsin's security chief that his intervention has brought the sides closer to a cease-fire.

Alexander Lebed said Monday that he and separatist military leader Aslan Maskhadov agreed on negotiations for a cease-fire and for withdrawal of rebel fighters from Grozny, the Chechen capital, now gripped by some of the fiercest fighting since the war began in December 1994.

The rebels continued to control the city center Tuesday, driving around in cars and four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Russians answered with tank, mortar and sniper fire, but there was no sign of a Russian ground assault to retake the center.

Maskhadov and Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky, acting commander of federal troops in Chechnya, began talks Monday afternoon by telephone, Lebed said. But on Tuesday, the Interfax news agency reported that Maskhadov had not been able to reach the federal command by telephone Monday.

The rebels said they were trying to set up talks with Russian military leaders Tuesday.

Lebed, Yeltsin's special envoy to the region, returned to Moscow on Monday after a secret meeting with rebel commanders, and blasted the Russian military for mishandling the war. He said he plans to take personal charge of Russia's military operations in breakaway Chechnya, where a week-old rebel offensive has left hundreds of Russian soldiers dead and wounded.

The separatists continued to attack government buildings Tuesday, and there was heavy sniper fire, apparently from both sides. Russian helicopters fired rockets, and Russian tanks and mortars near the old presidential palace shelled civilian areas throughout the night.

There also were clashes around the southern Minutka neighborhood.

Houses were burning, and the oil refineries on the city outskirts were belching black smoke. City streets were nearly deserted.

The rebels said several Russian armored vehicles managed to break through Monday night to the besieged building of the Federal Security Service, forcing separatist fighters to retreat.

They told the Interfax news agency they surrounded the building and were fighting to retake it.

The Russians claimed to have destroyed five trucks full of arms and ammunition meant for the separatists.

In addition, a separatist ambush on an infantry regiment in Chechnya's southern mountains, near the village of Vedeno, left 20 Russian troops dead, 37 wounded and 12 missing, Interfax reported, cited an unidentifed official at the Russian command.

The official also reported fighting at the town of Argun, 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of Grozny.

Lebed described Russian troops in Chechnya as half-starved, demoralized and poorly commanded.

''Keeping such kids there for cannon fodder is a shame,'' the retired paratroop general told a news conference Monday. ''They're indifferent. There is no chain of command or coordination.''

He said he has drafted a plan that puts him, as head of the Security Council, in charge of ending the war. The plan would give him control over the armed forces in Chechnya, and the right to appoint federal officials up to the level of deputy minister, he said.

Yeltsin has not signed off on the plan, but his office said Lebed's ''proposals for settlement of the situation ... on the whole, received the Russian president's approval.''

Once a harsh critic of the war, Lebed began sounding hawkish after joining Yeltsin's administration in June.

But his statements Monday showed a deeper respect for the separatists. He called them ''outstanding soldiers'' who should not be branded ''criminals'' -- the favored term of most Russian officials.

At the same time, Lebed was scathing in his assessment of the Russian-backed Chechen government, accusing it of lying.

He proposed bringing together representatives of the separatists, federal government, Moscow-backed Chechen government and religious leaders to discuss Chechnya's future.

Lebed said he believes the rebels might settle for something less than full independence from Russia.

About 200 Russian soldiers have been killed in a week of fighting and up to 800 wounded, military officials have said. There was no way to determine rebel and civilian casualties.

Thousands of refugees have been fleeing Grozny, and food, medicine and drinking water were running short.

=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press