Cornered Chechens Won't Retreat in Talks

THE first serious international attempt to stop bloodshed in Russia's separatist region of Chechnya broke down yesterday, as Chechens and Russians parted ways after just four hours of talks in the shattered Chechen capital of Grozny.

The talks, sponsored by the 53-nation Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE), did not bring any agreement on how to end the war in this northern Caucasian region. The conflict has cost thousands of military and civilian lives since Moscow sent in troops last Dec. 11 to quash a three-year independence bid.

Not a bad try

While no breakthrough was expected, the agreement by a delegation of Chechen separatist officials to meet with the puppet Chechen government, backed by the Kremlin, showed that the rebels could be willing to make concessions at a later date.

Russia now controls all of Grozny and most of Chechnya proper, and the Chechens have been forced to retreat to the mountains. While they are seriously outnumbered, they have begun a guerrilla war that could continue indefinitely.

Secessionist Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev did not attend the talks, although he was granted safe passage by the Russians. In his place he sent Chechnya's chief prosecutor, Usman Imayev, who has a history of involvement with earlier negotiations on the issue.

Speaking to reporters just after the talks broke down, Mr. Imayev tried to retain an optimistic note about possible future talks, while saying Chechnya would not be willing to negotiate further with Moscow at this time.

''The main thing is that talks have started and that is already positive. However, from what we saw today, the Russian side is not yet ready to stop murdering peaceful civilians,'' he said. No new date has been set for renewed negotiations.

Nikolai Semyonov, Moscow's administrator for Chechnya and the main Russian negotiator present, also tried to stay positive when he left the meeting.

''The most important thing is that the talks began. They showed the will to resolve the problem by peaceful means,'' he said.

According to the Russian Itar-Tass news agency, Imayev said earlier that a main provision of the Chechen peace plan would be the ''immediate and unconditional withdrawal'' of all Russian troops from the territory, a tenet Moscow has rejected in the past.

Under the OSCE's preconditions for the talks, both sides had agreed to stop fighting by Tuesday and halt all troop movements by Wednesday. Previous attempts to reach a cease-fire have either failed to come into effect or collapsed almost immediately.

Yesterday's talks began on a second day of a new wave of heavy fighting primarily south of Grozny. Although the capital seemed relatively calm yesterday with only sporadic shooting, fighting continued elsewhere in the region, with each side accusing the other of staging military attacks.

The Chechens said they had attacked Russian troops near one of Grozny's two airports, which has been turned into a Russian military base. And they said the Russians had launched a major offensive in the southeastern part of the region.

Low publicity

Apart from scattered pleas and demonstrations from various social groups such as the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, little public attention has been paid in Moscow to the war in Chechnya recently.

While images of corpses and devastated Chechen villages are still routine fare on the nightly news, most Muscovites seem to have become immune to the war in their backyard.

Still, the five months of brutal fighting has become a major embarrassment for Russian President Boris Yeltsin and affected his popularity at home and abroad.

In a carefully orchestrated 15-minute interview broadcast on Russian Public Television Wednesday evening, President Yeltsin pointedly made no reference to the war in Chechnya.

At an internationally televised joint press conference following a summit meeting in Moscow earlier this month, Yeltsin told President Clinton that all fighting in Chechnya had stopped. One of this week's reported casualties there was a six-year-old child.

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