A LIMITED cease-fire between Russian troops and Chechen separatists showed signs of breaking down on Feb. 14, eroding hope that an end to the two-month-old war in the rebel republic of Chechnya could be in sight.
The warring sides shelled each other's positions in and near the regional capital of Grozny, violating a cease-fire agreed to on Feb. 13 that would halt the use of heavy artillery, the Russian Interfax news agency reported.
Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, speaking Feb. 13 from a command post near Grozny, told The Christian Science Monitor's broadcast service, Monitor Radio, that he knew the truce could not hold and that he expected the Russians to resume hostilities almost immediately.
''There can be no trusting the Russians because no branch of government, especially the highest branch of government, is in control of the situation,'' he said after the truce was declared.
''The Russian military in Chechnya does not carry out [President Boris] Yeltsin's orders,'' he added.
''Russia would probably use the cease-fire to reload all their guns so that they can launch an even bigger attack,'' Mr. Dudayev said.
While the truce was only supposed to last until Feb. 15, Russian Defense Ministry officials said further talks could broaden it. But the shelling shows how far the Chechens and their historic conquerors, the Russians, are from reaching a permanent resolution to the conflict.
Previous attempts to end the fighting in Chechnya have failed. Cease-fire agreements called in December and January collapsed within hours.
US stands by
President Clinton telephoned Mr. Yeltsin after the cease-fire was announced and urged a peaceful settlement of the conflict. While Mr. Clinton reiterated that the United States recognizes Chechnya to be an integral part of Russia, he expressed concern over the bloodshed there.
The US has maintained support for Yeltsin despite the crisis. Clinton recently pledged $20 million in humanitarian and refugee aid to Chechnya.
The truce deal, reached at an airport near the town of Sleptsovsk, in the republic of Ingushetia near the Chechen border, was brokered by Russian Col. Gen. Anatoly Kulikov and Aslan Maskhadov, head of rebel forces.
Along with the cease-fire deal, the sides also agreed to finalize plans for the exchange of prisoners of war and the bodies of soldiers killed in the conflict, when they meet again Feb. 15.
''To effect a complete cease-fire would require further work,'' Mr. Maskhadov said in a Feb. 13 evening interview with Moscow's Ostankino TV. ''But if I were to give my word that there won't be any more shooting anywhere, it would be just empty talk.''
As General Kulikov is an Interior Ministry commander, it is unclear whether the Russian Army -- which falls under the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry -- will obey his orders.
Earlier this month, he took over as head of the Chechen operation from Defense Minister Gen. Pavel Grachev, who has been blamed for allowing indiscriminate attacks in the region, which resulted in many civilian deaths.
Until the last man
But this apparent move by Yeltsin to ward off criticism of the assault does not mean the fighting will end soon. While Grozny has been reduced to ruins and is now largely in Russian hands, an unnamed senior Russian officer told Interfax Feb. 13 that Russian troops would stay in Chechnya until they had crushed separatists in the major southern towns of Gudermes, Shali, and Argun.
He said that citizens would be asked to evacuate the cities and fighters would be told to surrender or face airstrikes, shelling, and eventual storming by special assault units.
But Russian presidential adviser Arkady Popov said Russian efforts to capture separatist strongholds could be disastrous. ''When the guns are silent, the potential for negotiations emerges,'' he said in an interview. ''But when there are air raids and bombardments, any negotiations are out of the question.''
The shifting front line
Similarly, a senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the Chechen conflict could spread into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan if Russian troops try to capture the three towns.
About 400,000 people from a prewar population in Chechnya of 1.2 million have been displaced because of the conflict, most of them from Grozny and surrounding areas, the ICRC estimates. As many as ''tens of thousands'' of people, mainly civilians, have been killed since Yeltsin dispatched troops to the region on Dec. 11, it says.
Some analysts say that the truce will serve merely to allow the two sides time to recuperate:
''The federal [Russian] forces need to regroup their battered troops and bring in reinforcements, and the Chechens are trying to move military hardware into the mountains,'' said Gadzhi Gadzhimagomedov, an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shakhrai, in an interview. ''That requires some time.''
Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the daily Sevodnya Feb. 14 that Russian troops could become more aggressive in the spring.
''More sunny days mean more possibilities for military actions,'' he wrote. ''The final goal of Russian policy in Chechnya has not changed: to liquidate the Dudayev army and by any means return Chechnya to the [Russian] Federation.''