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Grachev Says He Seeks Peaceful Solution To Chechen Conflict

Moscow, March 4 (RFE/RL) - Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev said on arrival in the Chechen capital Grozny today that he favors a "peaceful resolution of the Chechen conflict."

Grachev reiterated his offer to hold talks with Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, saying he would, in his words, "go anywhere" if a suitable offer is forthcoming. Grachev first issued the proposal in an interview on Russian television on saturday.

In Grozny, Grachev is to meet with top Russian security officials. He is also due to report on the latest developments to President Boris Yeltsin by phone.

Yeltsin was scheduled to meet later in the day with Presidential Council member Emil Pain in Moscow. Pain chairs one of two commissions set up to devise a peace plan for the caucasus republic. Tomorrow, Yeltsin is due to hold talks with his Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on his group's Chechen peace proposals.

Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports on whether Russian forces have ended their seige on a Chechen village, where fighting erupted yesterday.

Interfax and Itar-tass report fighting ceased shortly after midday in Snerdovodsk, just as Grachev arrived in Chechnya. Our correspondent reports Russian forces were carrying out aerial assaults earlier today on the village 45 km west of the capital. Our correspondent also quotes Russian military sources (unnamed) as saying the operation to mop up remaining Chechen separatists has almost ended. Meanwhile, an afp correspondent reporting from a neighboring village-- Russian forces barred journalists from entering the besieged town-- says fighting continues. The correspondent said missiles could be heard falling on Sernovodsk, sending up plumes of black smoke.

The Interfax news agency reported that Russian forces claimed to have opened a corridor to let civilians leave the town, allowing about 500 to escape into the neighboring region of Ingushetia. About 1,500 already had fled over the weekend.

Ingush officials organized a tent city and said they expected up to 15,000 refugees. Some of the refugees were wounded. The agency said that at least seven Russian servicemen were killed in fighting throughout Chechnya in the past 24 hours.