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    Yeltsin Orders Last Troops to Withdraw From Chechnya

    By David Hoffman
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, November 24 1996; Page A38

    President Boris Yeltsin ordered the last of Russia's troops today to withdraw from the breakaway region of Chechnya as Russian and Chechen officials signed a new agreement to settle economic links before the Chechen elections planned for January.

    Both moves were the strongest signs to date that the brutal Chechen war for independence, which claimed an estimated 40,000 lives, mostly civilians, has finally ended. Yeltsin sent troops into the region in December 1994 in a failed attempt to crush a separatist movement.

    In August a truce was brokered, but there had been fears that it would fall apart when one of its main architects, Russian national security chief Alexander Lebed, was fired by Yeltsin in October. However, today's announcements suggested that, despite recriminations and a sense of humiliation among the Russian political elite, the leaderships in both Russia and Chechnya are serious about building on the truce.

    Yeltsin, recovering from heart surgery at a rest home outside Moscow, issued an order that two units -- the 101st Internal Affairs Ministry brigade and the 205th Defense Ministry motorized infantry -- be withdrawn to outside the Chechen border. Under the earlier agreement, all Russian troops were to have been withdrawn by year's end. However, there were suggestions that the Russians would delay the pullout, which the Chechens said was the major outstanding issue.

    According to Russia's commercial television station, NTV, the two brigades, comprising about 6,000 men, were created especially for the Chechen war and have no home base but will be stationed elsewhere in the North Caucuses.

    Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky told reporters the troops would not be far from the Chechen border, but were being pulled out so the Chechen people can vote in January "not under the muzzle of an assault rifle." The Chechen elections are scheduled for Jan. 27.

    Under the August truce, a decision on the core of the conflict -- the Chechen demand for independence from Russia -- is to be postponed for up to five years. While this basic political hurdle has not been resolved, both sides appear to be moving toward a working relationship. Lebed's efforts have been continued by the new national security chief, Ivan Rybkin, and his deputy, businessman Boris Berezovsky, who has emphasized the role of Russian industrialists in rebuilding the region.

    Today's agreement was signed by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Chechen military commander Aslan Maskhadov at a government guest house near Moscow. The Chechen leaders, who for two years have appeared in combat fatigues at meetings with the Russians, came today in sleek, dark business suits, and Chernomyrdin declared that the agreement would advance "the peaceful path, the civilized path, the normal path" to ending the war.

    The agreement calls for the two parties to sign an economic deal after the election, and before then commits both sides to "an unobstructed movement of citizens, officials and freight" between Chechnya and Russia. The agreement also calls for restoration of the civilian airport, Severny, in Grozny, as well as road and rail links with Chechnya, before Dec. 1, and for social and humanitarian aid to be sent to the war-weary population.

    Both sides also vowed to jointly come up with agreements on oil and gas production, refining and transport before Dec. 1. Prior to the war, Chechnya was a key point in the Russian oil transport network, and it remains strategically placed along potential export routes for future Caspian Sea oil flows.

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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