RUSSIAN troops massed over the weekend on the borders of the rebel region of Chechnya, and citizens there prepared for an invasion. But signs on both sides indicate that a peaceful solution to the crisis might be possible.
``A large number of Russian troops, units, and detachments is massing in the North Caucasus to carry out a possible operation to eliminate bandit groups,'' said Sergei Gryzunov, spokesman for a special unit Moscow has set up to deal with the Chechen crisis.
In Grozny, capital of the breakaway republic, an official said that the Chechen government was preparing guerrilla resistance to any Russian intervention.
Chechens, long practiced in the arts of clan warfare, battled Russian domination for a century until 1864 and are feared throughout the nation for their ferocity. Men were setting up secret mountain hideouts ``with enough food, ammunition, and weapons for a year,'' said Chechen official Movladi Udugov.
But Dzhokhar Dudayev, the self-declared president of Chechnya, freed two captured Russian servicemen on Saturday, and hinted that he might be ready to let another 19 go as well.
``We understand the nature of the situation that has taken shape and will take decisions that meet the interests of the Chechen Republic and are based on the principles of clemency,'' Mr. Dudayev told the Interfax news agency.
At the same time spokesman Gryzunov said that the troops gathering on the Chechen frontier would be used only ``if all political and compromise options available today are exhausted.''
Russian President Boris Yeltsin had threatened last Tuesday to use ``all the forces and means at the disposal of the state'' to impose a state of emergency in Chechnya if fighting did not stop there within 48 hours.
BY the time the deadline fell on Thursday, however, Mr. Yeltsin reissued the declaration without mentioning a state of emergency. Later that day he recommended that no action be taken against Chechens who hand in their weapons by Dec. 15.
That new deadline appeared to give time for negotiations that would let Moscow back away from its threat to deploy troops in the recalcitrant republic.
Dudayev's representative at Chechen military headquarters, Musa Merzhuyev, told Interfax that his government ``prefers a peaceful means of settling the emerging crisis.''
Talks could bring results, he said, noting the success of a Russian parliamentary mission that brought the release of two Russian POWs over the weekend.
The leader of that delegation, Chairman of the Defense Committee in the State Duma (the lower house of parliament) Sergei Yushenkov, told reporters on his return to Moscow that ``any attempts to solve the Chechen situation by military means are absolutely unacceptable.''
He also called for an investigation into Russia's secret role in the fighting in Chechnya, revealed by the capture of 21 Russian servicemen during an assault on Grozny 10 days ago.
The two soldiers whom Mr. Yushenkov brought home said they had been recruited by the Federal Counterintelligence Service (formerly the KGB), to fight alongside the opposition to Dudayev. Moscow had denied its soldiers were fighting in Chechnya, though officials have not hidden their moral and financial support for the opposition there.
Now, however, troops and tanks are gathering near Chechnya in an overt threat to invade. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said he would need until Dec. 15 to form the new Army units in Southern Russia.
The size of the force is uncertain but clearly much larger than the 650-man unit Yeltsin sent to Grozny in November 1991 to impose a state of emergency after Dudayev declared independence. That force withdrew after getting no farther than the airport.