Chechen Leader Calles for Full Independence in Talks over Region

GROZNY (Reuters)–Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov–speaking a year after President Boris Yeltsin ordered embattled Russian troops to leave the region–said on Sunday he would agree to nothing less than full independence.

"We have decided once and forever that we are independent and will not step back," Maskhadov told reporters in his capital Grozny after returning from a foreign trip during which he visited Turkey–the United States and Azerbaijan.

On Nov. 23 last year–Yeltsin–whose 21-month military campaign to subdue Chechnya’s independence bid had failed–ordered a full withdrawal of his demoralized troops.

The pullout was a part of a peace deal signed by Moscow and Grozny on October 31 that year to end the war which had killed tens of thousands people.

Under the deal Chechnya agreed not to raise the sensitive issue of its future political status until 2001.

Yeltsin later admitted that the decision to send troops in Chechnya was one of his biggest mistakes. His senior aide said on Sunday the withdrawal proved a wise but difficult step.

"Resistance to this courageous step was strong but the time showed that the president had taken the only correct decision," the secretary of Yeltsin’s Security Council–Ivan Rybkin–told Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Rybkin was referring to strong pressure from hard-liners in the Russian government who demanded that separatist resistance be crushed by force whatever the price.

The last Russian troops finally left Chechnya on Dec. 30–1996. A month later Maskhadov–who led forces during the war–won presidential election in the devastated region.

After the polls Maskhadov said Chechnya had practically won independence and that the five-year delay agreed with Moscow was a time-out to let Moscow find a face-saving way to let the region go formally.

Moscow hopes to use the delay to create economic incentives for the independent-minded Chechnya to remain a part of the Russian federation. Moscow and Grozny have signed a deal on the joint use of a pipeline running through the region–which will deliver oil from Azerbaijan’s offshore deposits to Russia’s Black Sea coast.

"Our main task now is to integrate the Chechen republic into the economic life of the country," Rybkin–who plays a prominent role in negotiations with Chechnya–said.

The lack of mutual vision of Chechnya’s future has strongly strained relations between Moscow and Grozny.

Grozny accuses Moscow of failing to meet its promises of financial assistance for the reconstruction of the Chechen economy and blames Russia for trying to seal it off.

Moscow–for its part–blames Chechen leaders for being unable to curb flourishing crime that often spills over to Russia’s volatile southern regions.

Chechnya is trying–so far without success–to win support for its independence elsewhere.

Senior officials in Turkey–the United States and Azerbaijan have received Maskhadov but made clear they were dealing with him as individual or a Russian regional leader rather than with the head of an independent state.

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