Truckloads of Russians Pull Out as Jubilant Chechens Watch; Truce Holds

News and Press Release
Originally published

GROZNY, Russia (AP) - Truckloads of solemn Russian soldiers pulled out of the Chechen capital past gleeful rebel fighters Tuesday as peace efforts crept forward in the breakaway republic.

Two days after truce violations halted the military's withdrawal almost as soon as it began, scores of Russian army vehicles streamed out of the strategic Vedeno region and 200 troops left the silent capital.

"If the Russians come back here, it will be in coffins," vowed a rebel soldier, who identified himself only as Hkury.

The Russian commander in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, said the pullout would be over by Aug. 31. Some departing Russian troops said they felt "a sense of losing" the 20-month war.

Russian security chief Alexander Lebed reached an agreement last week with rebel leaders to halt fighting and withdraw Russian troops. The Russian military suspended the pullout over the weekend, but agreed Tuesday to resume their departure.

In Moscow, Lebed waited in vain for a meeting with President Boris Yeltsin, who abruptly went on vacation. Instead, the Chechnya troubleshooter sent him a written report on his proposed peace agreement.

Yeltsin's support has seemed to waver since he put Lebed in charge of resolving the Chechen conflict about two weeks ago.

Lebed is said to be ready to offer the Chechens a chance to vote on their republic's political status at some point in the future. The Chechens want independence from Russia; Moscow says it will never let Chechnya go. Another critical issue is what kind of armed forces Chechnya would have.

The Kremlin's handpicked leader of Chechnya bitterly attacked Lebed on Tuesday, lending credence to the security adviser's claims that his peace efforts have many enemies.

"Lebed gave Grozny away to terrorists," Doku Zavgayev told reporters in Moscow.

All was quiet in rubble-strewn Grozny, save the occasional blaring of horns by jeeps and trucks carrying bands of jubilant, gun-toting separatists past fast-dwindling Russian checkpoints.

Despite the four-day-old truce mediated by Lebed, few on either side were predicting the bloodshed is over. Even as the Russians left, Chechen units were digging new entrenchments.

But the rebels' gains in retaking Grozny this month - and the deal with Lebed that seems to seal them - have Russian soldiers talking openly of defeat.

"We have the sense of losing," acknowledged Col. Mikhail Cherneshkov, standing at a Russian checkpoint that was about to be turned over to joint Russian-Chechen command.

"We didn't need this war," the colonel added softly.

Across the road some 200 Russian soldiers sat glumly in nine trucks, waiting to be taken out of Grozny. Many watched, their chins cupped in their hands, as trucks filled with rebels sailed past, horns honking.

A 30-year-old officer who would give his name only as Andrei uttered what has become the Russian army's bitter refrain: "We didn't lose this war, the politicians did." He blamed poor support from Moscow, the terrible condition of the army and bad strategy.

Lebed, a former paratroop general, has also denounced the military for the way it waged the 20-month war.

Rebel fighters who will serve on the joint Russian-Chechen military unit set up under the truce chatted with Russian officers. Scarcely able to contain their pride, they kept glancing at the truckloads of soldiers waiting to leave.

"I dreamed of this," said Ansor Musalatov, a bearded 32-year-old wearing a green Chechen beret and military fatigues. "I didn't think I'd live to see this day.

"We have the feeling of victory. But then I think of all the killed fighters, friends and relatives, and I have pain in my heart."

About 30,000 people, mostly civilians, are believed to have died since Yeltsin sent troops into mostly Muslim Chechnya 20 months ago to end the tiny region's bid for independence.

Grozny residents who fled last week in the face of heavy Russian bombardments continued to trickle back to a city without electricity or running water. Cars lined up to enter the city from the west across a rickety, hastily repaired bridge over the Sunzha River.

The Russians' frustration at losing is clear. A Russian officer halted a military column leaving Chechnya Tuesday when he saw an Associated Press photographer taking pictures of the exodus.

The officer angrily ripped the film out of the camera - the second such incident involving the AP in less than a week.