A STUNNING ambush that killed 18 Russian soldiers in Chechnya has overshadowed efforts by Moscow to restart a stalled peace process in this separatist region of southern Russia.
The attack in southern Chechnya on Tuesday evening was the bloodiest incident in the region for months, although it came after weeks of low-level violence that has killed more than 50 Russian soldiers, despite a cease-fire agreement signed in July.
Chechen guerrillas reportedly ambushed a Russian military convoy that had come to the aid of comrades taken hostage by local residents. The Russian Army warned local residents to leave the region ''because an operation will be held against the fighters.''
But Moscow appeared to play down the wider political implications of the incident, suggesting that officials did not want anything to upset their efforts to peacefully settle the Chechen conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives since Russian troops stormed through Chechnya 10 months ago to quash its independence-minded government.
The government-run Russian Public Television (ORT), which aired a graphic report on the attack during its Wednesday midnight newscast, had dropped all reference to the story by yesterday morning.
''The ambush was a very hard blow to the strategy of peacemaking,'' suggested one ORT staffer. ''There are people in the government who would like to start the war again, and if there is a fight in the government around these issues, those in favor of a peaceful solution would not like to see this reportage aired.''
Both President Boris Yeltsin and his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, have reiterated that they would not be provoked into abandoning their policy of seeking a negotiated solution to the Chechen crisis.
But peace talks were suspended Oct. 6, when the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya - and a forceful proponent of negotiations - Gen. Anatoly Romanov, was critically injured by a car bomb.
The Kremlin reached out to Chechen independence forces this week, sacking Salambek Khadjiev as head of the pro-Moscow government in Grozny, the Chechen capital.
Chief Chechen negotiator Khozahmed Yerikhanov signaled a possible compromise Wednesday by suggesting that he could negotiate with the new head of the Grozny government, Doku Zavgayev.
Mr. Zavgayev was head of the Soviet-era Chechen parliament that independence forces overthrew in 1991. He is less closely associated with Russia's brutal military campaign in Chechnya, though he does not support Chechen separatism.
TALKS between Russian and Chechen delegations to bolster the fragile cease-fire had been going nowhere before they were broken off three weeks ago. The two sides were unable to resolve the key military issue that divided them - whether Russian troops should withdraw before the Chechens disarm, or vice versa.
But Russian officials evidently hope that Zavgayev will prove more acceptable to Chechens than Khadjiev.
Another potential member of such a government threw his hat into the ring yesterday, when Ruslan Khasbulatov - Speaker of the Supreme Soviet that rebelled against President Yeltsin in October 1993 - told the Izvestia newspaper that he was ready to join a temporary authority, pending fresh elections.
Having assiduously steered clear of involvement in Chechen politics for the past year, Mr. Khasbulatov, who enjoys considerable prestige in his native Chechnya, now appears poised to reenter the game.