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Presidential envoy to Chechnya heads to Grozny for possible talks

Moscow, April 18 (RFE/RL) - Russia's special envoy to the Chechen conflict, Emil Pain, has left Moscow for possible talks with Chechen separatists in the breakaway Caucasus republic. Our Moscow correspondent quotes Russian officials as saying Pain is leading a delegation of Russian government experts seeking a solution to the ongoing conflict in Chechnya.

Pain's trip comes as a peace forum of Chechen field commanders opens today in the southern Chechen village of Shali. Representatives of Chechen political parties and movements are expected to discuss ways to get direct talks between Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.

The commander of Chechen separatist forces, Aslan Maskhadov, says a withdrawal of Russian troops from chechnya is not a precondition for peace talks. Maskhadov today also told the Russian daily, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, that despite Yeltsin's pledge to halt military maneuvers in Chechnya, fighting continues. Yesterday, Yeltsin said military operations had been suspended but the fight against what he called "terrorism and banditry" would go on.

Maskhadov, who is expected to attend today's Shali peace forum, said Russian forces have suffered heavy losses lately, although he did not offer exact figures.

Meanwhile, our correspondent quotes the Russian military command in Chechnya as reporting more clashes with Chechen fighters in southern and eastern Chechnya last night, with intense fighting reported in the separatist stronghold of Vedeno.