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Mixed Signals Given On Whether Chernomyrdin Will Join Peace Talks

September 18, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ Russian politicians sent mixed signals Wednesday about new peace talks with Chechen separatists: security chief Alexander Lebed said Russia’s prime minister would join the talks, but others said he would not.

The uncertainty reflected tensions in Moscow about the peace deal Lebed reached with rebels in the breakaway southern republic last month.

Lebed briefed Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for 40 minutes Wednesday about his talks earlier this week in Chechnya, said the premier’s spokesman Viktor Konnov. No indication was given of Chernomyrdin’s response.

Lebed said Chernomyrdin will join negotiations with the Chechens this week, to press for a new coalition government and to start funding restoration work _ with money the Kremlin has promised but failed to provide.

An official close to Chernomyrdin, however, said the prime minister’s participation in negotiations was unlikely, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Lebed so far has personally carried the burden of peace efforts in Chechnya. Chernomyrdin and the Kremlin, while gratified that Lebed’s truce has held, are reluctant to back a deal that might lead to Chechnya splitting off from Russia.

They have signaled continuing opposition to a key provision of the agreement: that Chechens vote on their independence in 2001.

Lebed, who gave no date for new negotiations, returned to Moscow after meeting with the separatists in Chechnya on Tuesday and announcing that Russian troops will resume their pullout this week.

He said the sides have reached ``complete mutual understanding ... on many issues,″ according to the Interfax news agency.

But the outspoken security chief had acid words for both Moscow politicians reluctant to endorse his peace deal and military leaders who suspended the troop withdrawal.

``Everyone is ready to criticize, but no one is saying what should be done and how,″ Interfax quoted Lebed as saying.

President Boris Yeltsin, now hospitalized and awaiting heart surgery, has been against a speedy withdrawal such as envisioned within Lebed’s accord.

Lebed’s plan faces other obstacles. The prisoner exchange has not yet taken place and the pro-Moscow Chechen government opposes any coalition with the rebels.

Lebed, Chernomyrdin and presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais are overseeing Chechnya policy in Yeltsin’s absence. There have been suggestions that Chernomyrdin and Chubais have joined forces to isolate the ambitious and popular Lebed, who openly covets Yeltsin’s job.

However, Chubais denied such notions in an interview published Wednesday, telling the daily Izvestia that he and Lebed were ``interacting very closely.″

The war in Chechnya, which began in December 1994 when Moscow sent in troops to quell the republic’s separatist drive, has killed more than 80,000 people, mostly civilians.

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