MOSCOW -- Russian government and Chechen separatist negotiators agreed yesterday to a cease-fire that would disarm Chechnya's rebels and withdraw Russian troops from the rebellious republic.
Although the accord marks the biggest step toward peace in the 7 1/2 -month-old war, it was considered by both sides to be a fragile and incremental deal because it doesn't address the dispute that caused the war: Chechen sovereignty.
Chechen rebels want to be recognized as independent, and Moscow wants some control over the region as part of the Russian federation.
An estimated 20,000 people -- mostly civilians -- have died over this fierce disagreement since the Dec. 11 Russian invasion of Chechnya.
Negotiations will begin anew Thursday on the critical sovereignty issue.
"The war in Chechnya is ending," chief Chechen negotiator Usman Imayev said in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where the peace talks have been sputtering off and on for five weeks.
Russia's chief negotiator, Vyacheslav Mikhailov, was more subdued in his analysis, calling the agreement an important step lTC "for starting the movement toward peace, the disarmament of illegal armed groups and restoration of normal life in Chechnya."
The official end of the war provides for the gradual disarming of Chechen fighters and a pull-out by all but two Russian brigades. The two sides will swap prisoners and
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exchange maps of troop locations and mined areas.
"Probably not everyone will be ecstatic about this agreement either in Grozny, the mountains or Moscow," said Col. Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, Russian interior minister.
"There are forces willing to keep this fire, if not burning, at least smoldering. But we, the participants in the talks, are unanimous that peace is our main concern."
Adding uncertainty was an Interfax news agency report that quoted rebel leader Dzhokhar M. Dudayev as dismissing the pact.
Mr. Dudayev told Russia's Radio Liberty that Chechen negotiators were pressured into signing the deal and prevented from contacting him for the last several days, Interfax said.
The pact "can have no legal force," Mr. Dudayev was quoted as telling Radio Liberty from his hide-out.
His comments could not be confirmed immediately, and no other details were available.
It also was unclear if the interview was conducted before negotia
tors could contact Mr. Dudayev about details of the accord.
A Western diplomat, while welcoming any agreement that could put the conflict closer to resolution, characterized the situation as "completely splintered."
"The biggest danger is going to be [controlling further] armed clashes. . . . There's all these people on a lot of different sides with a lot of guns," the diplomat said.
Indeed, skirmishes continued right up until the eve of the agreement, signed early yesterday morning.
The agreement was hammered out between the Russian government and rebel forces loyal to Mr. Dudayev. There are other rebel forces that may refuse to honor the accord. And questions were already being raised yesterday by Mr. Dudayev's negotiators about whether they would accept administration of the cease-fire by the Moscow-backed government in Grozny.
Russians have offered Chechens autonomy within the Russian federation, but Chechen rebels want complete independence.
Historically, Chechens have been known for their determination for in
dependence -- especially after the harsh Soviet period. But after the severe beating that civilian Chechens have taken in the war, it is not clear that a majority would support continued armed conflict. Elections
scheduled for November in Chechnya are expected to be a gauge of that sentiment.
In 1991, Chechens overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general who prompt
ly declared independence. Hostilities between Russia and Chechnya simmered -- there were hostages taken by Chechen rebels and federal troops advanced to the borders of Chechnya -- before President Boris N. Yeltsin sent Russian troops into Grozny, destroying the city during several months of bombing.
Peace talks did not start in earnest until 100 Chechen rebels stormed into the southern Russian city of Budennovsk, killing scores of people and taking hundreds of hostages at a hospital.
A massive human tragedy on the Chechen side, the war has also been political folly for Mr. Yeltsin.
Yesterday's accord, said the Western diplomat, is just the kind of "massage" of the volatile situation that is necessary for domestic Russian politics.
On the eve of the election season in Russia -- parliamentary elections are in December and presidential elections come next spring -- Moscow's goal in the peace talks is to get the unpopular war in Chechnya "to a point where it can be ignored for the December elections," said the diplomat.