Russia

Russian Troops Leave Chechnya

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GROZNY, Russia (AP) -- In the first wave of a major troop withdrawal, a Russian tank battalion began pulling out of Chechnya on Sunday under last month's peace accord with secessionist rebels.

Members of the 133rd Tank Battalion, which had taken part in most major fighting in the breakaway republic since the war began in December 1994, left for their home base outside St. Petersburg.

Scores of weary servicemen were awarded medals in a somber farewell ceremony beneath a scorching sun at the Russian base in Khankala, a village just southwest of Grozny, the shattered Chechen capital.

Some 200 troops and 24 tanks left Grozny by train Sunday, and others left by helicopter, with more units to follow in the next few days.

Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, the top Russian commander in Chechnya, thanked the battalion for ''honestly performing its duty and displaying courage and heroism.''

In a ceremony outside Grozny's airport, Maj. Gen. Partagen Andriyevsky honored those killed in the war. ''We cannot consider the war to be over until the last serviceman is buried or released from captivity,'' he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

The peace accord, reached by Russian security chief Alexander Lebed and top rebel leaders, contains the key provision of deferring for five years the question of Chechnya's ultimate political status. Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov insisted Sunday that Chechnya should not be allowed to secede.

President Boris Yeltsin endorsed the peace plan last week but said he opposed the speedy Russian troop withdrawal it called for. That has left it unclear when the withdrawal might be completed.

A Russian army official said the withdrawal's first stage will involve 4,500 army servicemen and an unspecified number of Interior Ministry troops, the Interfax news agency reported.

The Russian general staff said last week that some 11,000 Russian servicemen are concentrated at five bases around the southern, mostly Muslim republic.

Tikhomirov said Lebed would probably return to Chechnya for more talks on Tuesday.

As many as 80,000 people have been killed since Yeltsin ordered troops to put down Chechnya's secession drive. Several previous peace accords failed, but fighting has virtually stopped since the latest pact was signed.

Grozny was quiet Sunday. Old women dragged potatoes home from the market along streets littered with shrapnel and lined with gutted buildings.

In the Staropromyslovsky district, some of the Russians and Chechens who now police Grozny in joint patrols played a soccer game. The Russians won, 3-1.

But hostility remains. A few scattered clashes were reported overnight Sunday in which one Russian serviceman was killed, the Russian military command reported.

=A9 Copyright 1996 The Associated Press