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Russia, Chechnya sign peace deal

But key issue of independence unresolved

May 12, 1997
Web posted at: 9:03 a.m. EDT (1303 GMT)

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MOSCOW (CNN) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Chechen counterpart Aslan Maskhadov signed a peace agreement on Monday, promising an end to 400 years of intermittent conflict between Moscow and the independence-seeking region in southern Russia.

But the brief, generally worded treaty ducks a major divisive issue: whether Chechnya will ultimately be allowed full independence.

The republic considers itself an independent state, while Moscow considers it part of Russia. There were no new signs either side is willing to compromise on that issue.

Follow-up to last year's truce

The deal aims to turn last year's cease-fire between Moscow and the separatist region, conquered by Russia in the last century, into a lasting peace.

The truce had halted a 21-month war in which tens of thousands of people died in an ill-fated Russian military operation to crush Chechnya's independence drive.

The deal included the withdrawal of Russian troops and the deferral of any decision on Chechnya's status until 2001.

"The war is ending, for the first time in the history of relations between Moscow and Grozny, and the era of peace is starting," Maskhadov said on arrival in Moscow.

Long history of conflict

The long history of military conflict between Russia and Chechnya includes a bitter war in the 19th century as the Chechens resisted Russia's drive to conquer the mountainous north Caucasus region.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Central Asia in 1944, accusing them of collaborating with the invading Nazi troops. They were only allowed to return in the 1950s.

Monday's talks were the first meeting between Yeltsin and Maskhadov since Maskhadov, a former Soviet colonel who led Chechen military resistance to the Russian forces, was elected Chechen president in January.

He has vowed to fight for full independence for his region, a demand which Moscow rejects out of hand.

Maskhadov is also expected to meet Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to sign a series of economic agreements, opening the way for Russian aid to the war-torn region.

Meanwhile, Chechnya remains troubled by lawlessness. Several armed groups operate outside his authority, and a wave of kidnappings this year has targeted Russian journalists.

Maskhadov said after Monday's signing that the absence of a more formal peace agreement had encouraged terrorists.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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