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Russian troops begin pullout in Chechnya

But truce talks on hold

August 25, 1996
Web posted at: 11:10 a.m. EDT (1510 GMT)

NOVYE ATAGI, Russia (CNN) -- Russian troops began leaving southern Chechnya Sunday in the first step of a new cease-fire agreement in the troubled region, but talks aimed at completing the tentative agreement were postponed while Russian security chief Alexander Lebed returned to Moscow.

Lebed told reporters "legal difficulties" had delayed the talks.

Lebed met Saturday with rebel chief-of-staff Aslan Maskhadov to iron out a political settlement to the 20-month conflict over the rebels' drive for independence. The two men said they had found a solution acceptable to both sides, but neither would reveal any details.

Earlier Sunday, Russian military officials said the talks were canceled because the rebels had attacked a Russian armored column and seized weapons.

Rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov confirmed the seizure, but said the Chechens involved were a rogue group, and that some of their members had been arrested. He added that the weapons were being collected for return to the Russians.

"This group does not belong to the armed forces of the Chechen republic of Ichkeria," Udugov said. "The Chechen side apologized officially to the Russian side and expressed the hope that provocations will not became a reason for the negotiations to be suspended."

Plans to begin joint Russian-Chechen patrols in the capital Grozny were put on hold after the seizure, but efforts have continued to set up five districts in the city that will fall under Russian-Chechen authority.

Officials have reopened some roads in the city and begun to remove bodies from the streets. But few refugees were electing to return to their homes Sunday.

Quiet falls over city

Lebed's diplomacy in Chechnya has brought relative quiet to Grozny. There were reports of about a dozen violations of the cease-fire Sunday, but none serious. Still to come in the negotiations is the tricky issue of Chechen independence -- the rebels demand full independence, while the Kremlin refuses to allow it.

Udugov told reporters Sunday that the issue of Chechnya's independence would "be decided in a referendum, by the free will of the Chechen people."

Some reports indicated that while the rebels had not given up their drive for independence, they were willing to wait until the region becomes more stable in the aftermath of the cease-fire.

The war in Chechnya began in earnest in December 1994 when Russian troops were sent to the region to quell the independence drive. The conflict came to a head on August 6, when rebels attacked Grozny, forced Russian troops into disarray, and effectively took control of the city.

Correspondent Brent Sadler and Reuters contributed to this report.

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