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Russian Troop Withdrawal Postponed Till After Vote on Sunday

Moscow, June 13 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Defense Ministry officials say Russian troops will begin withdrawing, at the earliest, from Chechnya after Sunday when local elections are slated to take place there.

Our correspondent in Moscow quotes Defense Ministry officials as saying Russian forces will remain deployed throughout the republic at least until then to maintain security as balloting takes place. The poll coincides with Russia's presidential poll.

Russian forces reportedly had started withdrawing from the village of Shali, south of Grozny, earlier this week. But the troop pullout reportedly was halted yesterday.

The only Russian official reaction to the reported troop pullout has been a denial. Yesterday, the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, said the reported troop movement in Shali was merely a re-deployment of separate units. He noted no official timetable has been worked out on withdrawing Russian forces.

The Moscow-backed government of Doku Zavgayev has said the local elections will go forward despite an agreement between Moscow and Chechen separatists to delay the vote. At peace talks earlier this week, Russian officials agreed to withdraw its troops from Chechnya by the end of August and to postpone local elections until after that date. This had been a key demand of the separatists, who said free elections could only take place once Russian troops had withdrawn.

Meanwhile, clashes continue in Chechnya. Itar-tass says one Russian soldier was killed and two wounded in clashes overnight in the Caucasus republic.