RUSSIA opened negotiations yesterday with the breakaway republic of Chechnya, as its invading troops there ran into trouble, and domestic opposition to Moscow's military intervention mounted.
But there seemed little chance that the talks would achieve much, given the strong demand for independence among leaders in this region in southern Russia.
Meanwhile, the Russian troops that were ordered Sunday to restore order in the rebellious republic ran into unexpected difficulties as they advanced on the capital, Grozny. Two of the three advancing columns were held up by local opposition, reports from the area said.
In Moscow, political leaders from across the spectrum voiced their opposition to military action in Chechnya. President Boris Yeltsin found support for his move only from two unlikely bedfellows who normally oppose the government as violently as they oppose each other - Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal Boris Fyodorov.
At a meeting yesterday, all faction leaders in the State Duma (lower house of parliament) agreed that there was still a chance for a political solution to the Chechnya crisis and appealed for a halt to military action.
``Even now we think that there is an opportunity for a peaceful solution through negotiations'' said Mikhail Lapshin, head of the conservative Agrarian Party.
In calling for negotiations rather than military force, however, all the Duma leaders insisted that Chechnya was part of Russia, not the independent republic that Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev says it is.
``Chechnya is an integral part of the territory of the Russian Federation, and we have to maintain this position throughout the negotiations,'' said Yegor Gaidar, whose Russia's Choice Party has criticized military intervention in Chechnya most loudly.
That position also topped Moscow's agenda at separate talks with Chechen officials and opposition leaders that began yesterday afternoon in Vladikavkaz, near the Chechen border.
``The laws and norms of the Russian Federation have to be upheld in Chechnya,'' said Alexei Margun, deputy chief of the government information center set up for the Chechen crisis. At the same time, he added, ``disarming all the illegal armed factions, whichever side they have taken'' in the Chechen conflict, was a major Russian goal.
But chances that Mr. Dudayev would lay down his arms and renounce his republic's independence looked slim. He has refused to make any such concessions since declaring Chechnya's independence three years ago and has promised never to give in.
The Chechen government is hoping to negotiate an end to Russia's economic blockade against it and a withdrawal of the Russian troops.
The Russian government appeared hopeful of winning some hearts and minds in Chechnya, as its troops advanced, by distributing food aid to inhabitants of the economically ravaged republic.
The government press office said yesterday Moscow had dispatched meat, butter, sugar, and cereals to Chechnya.
But it was unclear how much of this aid had been distributed, as the Russian troops came up against local resistance that slowed their operation.
One column of tanks was apparently halted in Ingushetia, a semiautonomous ethnic republic once linked to Chechnya, by Ingusheti sympathizers of Dudayev, who burned 30 Russian vehicles.
To the east, the Russian advance was reportedly held up just inside the Chechnya border by local militia who captured 47 Russian soldiers, according to the official Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
Russian troops, under orders not to fire on civilians, appear to have been unable to resist local residents who blocked their way.
Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev issued a furious statement yesterday, accusing Ingusheti President Ruslan Aushev of ``in effect declaring war on the Russian president.''
``We could never have believed that, shielding themselves with women and children, somebody would shoot at the backs of people in military uniform operating on Russian territory,'' he said.
Chechen officials, meanwhile, insisted that they had not declared war on Russia, as Russian news agencies had reported earlier.
``We have come to find peaceful means of settling conflict,'' said the head of the Chechen delegation, Economics and Finance Minister Timaz Abubakarov, before talks started yesterday afternoon. ``Chechnya will never miss a chance to maintain peace.''