Both sides accused the other of violating the cease-fire in Chechnya on its first day Saturday, and the Russian commander warned that his troops might be forced to “decisively destroy” rebel fighters.
President Boris Yeltsin, who negotiated the truce with rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, has a lot riding on its success as his re-election campaign goes into its final two weeks.
The fighting between Russian troops and Chechen separatist guerrillas was supposed to stop at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. But clashes were reported in the southeast, and Russian troops threatened to attack the town of Shali.
The Russians said a group of rebels attacked a military post near the village of Shilani, capturing 26 soldiers, damaging two armored personnel carriers and destroying an anti-aircraft system. There was no word on any casualties.
The Chechen rebels said the capture of the soldiers was an “act of revenge” for the death of a separatist field commander in a shootout Friday, the Interfax news agency said.
A clash also was reported in the nearby village of Suani, where Interfax said at least eight Russians were wounded. It was unclear who fired first. A military spokesman said rebel fighters tried to “get to the rear of an infantry brigade” in Suani and Russian troops were “forced to open fire.”
Yeltsin has said his chances in the June 16 presidential election depend on showing progress in ending the unpopular, 17-month-old conflict in the separatist republic.
Yet many Russian commanders are hostile to the idea of a cease-fire and have ignored past calls by Yeltsin to stop the fighting.
The top commander of troops in Chechnya, Lt. Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, told Interfax that Yandarbiyev couldn’t control the Chechen field commanders and said he might be forced to order his troops to “decisively destroy” rebel bands who “don’t want peace.”
Yeltsin appeared to agree with this assessment. “It is obvious that despite his promises Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev is now incapable of controlling all units of militants,” presidential spokesman Sergei Medvedev told Interfax.
“This means that federal troops retain the right to an adequate response to such actions,” he said.
Russian troops sealed off the town of Shali on Saturday and were poised to attack, Interfax and the ITAR-Tass news agency said. Russian troops were demanding that rebel fighters in the town disarm. Clashes took place Friday in Shali, 16 miles south of Grozny, the Chechen capital.
Tikhomirov’s command later said that 150 rebel fighters had left Shali, apparently defusing the situation.
Chechen rebel spokesman Mavladi Udugov, speaking on Russian television, said the “brilliantly prepared provocation,” by the Russians caused the “breakdown” in peace talks.
Talks to follow up on the cease-fire accord were planned for Saturday but were postponed and tentatively rescheduled for Tuesday.
The standoff in Shali was one reason given for delaying the talks. Udugov said the rebel leadership would decide by today whether to attend new talks.
Lt. Gen. Anatoly Shkirko said Russian forces have agreed to rebel demands to turn over 10 Chechens seized in Shali in exchange for the 26 Russian troops, Interfax said.
Up to 30,000 people may have died in the war, which began when Yeltsin sent in troops in December 1994 to end Chechnya’s self-declared independence.