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Grachev: Russia To Withdraw Some Troops Starting Next Month

Moscow, March 18 (RFE/RL) - Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev says Moscow will begin withdrawing some troops from Chechnya next month.

No further details on Grachev's statement, reported by the Interfax news agency, were available. But the statement was confirmed today to our correspondent by a senior Russian defense official, who requested anonymity.

Outlining the plan to our correspondent, the official said Moscow next month would start a step-by-step withdrawal of Russian Defense Ministry forces. The official said Russian Interior Ministry forces would remain in Chechnya.

The decision to withdraw troops next month is reported to have been taken last week at the meeting of russia's security council.

But the Defense Ministry official told our correspondent that the partial withdrawal from Chechnya was part of an overall peaceful settlement of the Chechen crisis.

Meanwhile intense fighting was reported in western Chechnya today, with civilian refugees streaming into Ingushetia to escape Russian assaults.

The Vice President of Ingushetia, Boris Agapov, told Interfax that some 4,000 refugees from the village of Samashki had arrived in the Ingush village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya. He said tent villages were being erected.

A Russian human rights activist, Andrei Mironov, told our correspondent he had received a report from a civilian fleeing Samashki that Russian forces were using at least 11 helicopters to bomb the village. the woman, who fled last night, said many civilians remain there. The account could not be confirmed independently.

But Interfax reports that Samashki as well as the villages of Orekhovo, Bamut, and Stary Achkhoi are under heavy fire today. There are also reports that Russian troops have surrounded Sernovodsk and Katyr-Yurt.

Interfax quotes a Russian military spokesman saying about 450 well-armed and well-trained separatists are in western Chechnya. The spokesman said that across Chechnya, separatists had attacked Russian positions at least 24 times since early yesterday, killing 12 and wounding 29 more.

Itar-Tass reports that separatists launched an attack overnight against federal troops guarding a television and radio transmitter in the village of Goragorsky, 40 kms northeast of the capital Grozny. The agency quotes officials of the Moscow-backed Chechen government as saying the attack had been repulsed.