A Respite but 'No Mercy' for Chechens

RUSSIA offered a truce to rebels in Chechnya yesterday to coincide with VE-Day celebrations, but also announced plans to boost forces there -- which breaches a disarmament pact.

Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had ordered his forces in the breakaway Caucasian republic to stop military operations for 10 days from midnight May 1, according to Interfax news agency. But he said the future of the truce would depend on goodwill from the Chechens.

''If illegal armed formations continue firing at the federal troops we will have to take adequate measures,'' he said. ''In that case, military operations will resume and continue until the bandits have been completely exterminated. There will be no mercy.''

It was not clear whether General Grachev, who is commanding Moscow's biggest military operation since the Afghan war, was in a position to order his troops to stop shooting in Chechnya without formal agreement from Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Almost 50 top world leaders, many of them critical of Russia's violent military campaign in Chechnya, are due in Moscow for the World War II commemorations of Allied victory in Europe on May 9.

Interfax said Chechen separatist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, backed the idea of talks, but the agency also quoted Grachev as ruling out any negotiations with Mr. Dudayev, branded a state criminal in Russia.

Thousands of people died and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes after Russia had sent troops and armor last December to quell a three-year independence bid.

Four months after Moscow had launched the operation, Russian troops are still far from final victory.

While Russians have managed to seize most of northern and western Chechnya, they are still locked in attempts to control a number of rebel strongholds that block their advance.

Moscow clearly expects the Chechen crisis to last for a long time. The Russian ground-troops commander yesterday disclosed plans to base a new army in the North Caucasus.

Col. Gen. Vladimir Semyonov told Interfax the new 58th Army should be in place by June 1, although this would break limits set in a treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE).

Top Russian officials have said the CFE treaty should be revised to take into account new events after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

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