Russian and Chechen forces blasted each other with artillery and mortars Saturday as their commanders negotiated details of a 4-day-old cease-fire that has hardly prevented any fighting.
The meeting in southern Chechnya between Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky, the top Russian commander, and Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov lasted four hours, the separatist leadership said.
The two discussed the makeup of a joint commission that would monitor a truce that has been shaky since it was agreed to earlier in the week and decided to meet again today.
Maskhadov gave Pulikovsky a copy of his order to rebel fighters formally establishing the truce and “zones of responsibility” in devastated Grozny, and Pulikovsky promised to issue a similar order today, the Interfax news agency reported.
“These orders should be considered the first serious step toward stopping the bloodshed,” Pulikovsky said after the meeting.
Pulikovsky said he refused Maskhadov’s request not to use aviation and artillery in Grozny. He also said a rebel attack on a military train near Grozny was repelled by Russian helicopter gunships Saturday.
The two sides fired on each other with artillery, mortars and machine guns, and Russian warplanes staged several air raids on the city, which the rebels have been in control of since Aug. 6.
Issa Astamirov, the Chechen chief of staff in Grozny, said his fighters also rebuffed several Russian attacks.
“We don’t have any hope that the Russians will honor any cease-fire,” he said. “Russia’s policy is based on the principle of the fewer Chechens, the better.”
The rebel command said five Russian armored vehicles were destroyed Saturday in fighting, according to Interfax.
The Russian side had no immediate comment but accused the Chechens of using an unknown irritant gas against its troops in one clash.
In Moscow, the man now in charge of the Chechen crisis, national security chief Alexander Lebed, demanded the resignation Friday of Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov.
Both men appealed to President Boris Yeltsin to decide their squabble. Kulikov offered his resignation but Yeltsin told him to stay on, Russian media reported Saturday, citing Kremlin sources.
Lebed refused to attend a meeting of top Interior Ministry officials on Saturday, calling it “a real show meant to save Gen. Kulikov.” The ministry and Kulikov later issued conciliatory statements suggesting that Lebed was unfamiliar with the situation in Chechnya.
In Chechnya, many interior troops believed that Lebed could help resolve the conflict, but said Kulikov should not serve as a scapegoat.
“It’s not right to blame just one person. Maybe he’s guilty in some way but he’s not the only one. A lot of other people are guilty,” said Maj. Sergei Vakhtarin, whose troops were manning a checkpoint 25 miles southwest of Grozny.
The rebel chief of staff, Maskhadov, told Associated Press Television that Lebed is the only Russian official he trusts.
“He hasn’t got blood on his hands,” said Maskhadov, who has met twice this week with Lebed in search of a way to end the 20-month war, which has killed more than 30,000 people. Yeltsin gave Lebed sweeping powers this past week to oversee the military in Chechnya and to end the deeply unpopular war.
At least 247 Russian soldiers have died and 1,000 have been wounded since the rebels overran Grozny, according to Lebed.
Russian troops are surrounded at three spots in Grozny. The rest of the city is owned by separatist fighters.
Civilians, caught once again in the crossfire of the war, have deserted the city by the tens of thousands.