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Tension Mounts In Chechnya

Prague, July 9 (RFE/RL) -- Hopes that the war in Chechnya may soon be over appear to have been dashed yet again. Peace talks have once again borne little fruit. Tension in the republic is mounting by the moment.

Before the Russian presidential elections it was a humble and apparently regretful Boris Yeltsin who appeared before the cameras to say that the bloody conflict could well cost him his political life.

It was Aleksandr Lebed, the former army general and long-time critic of the war, who helped save it.

The arrival of Lebed in the Kremlin's corridors not only helped secure Yeltsin's victory; it also forced the Russian leader to do some necessary housecleaning. Out went Defence Minister Pavel Grachev and several other officials, who had supported tough military action in Chechnya. In, suddenly, came the prospect of peace. Or so it seemed.

Lebed talked of holding a referendum in Chechnya for or against independence. In an interview with a Brazilian newspaper this weekend he said, "If the people of Chechnya decided to breakaway - and I'm not at all sure of that - it would be necessary to establish a genuine border. Future relations with Chechnya would be determined on that basis."

This apparent softening of attitude from Moscow has not been borne out on the ground. Yesterday, the commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, issued a bellicose statement ordering separatists to hand over their prisoners of war within 24 hours. The deadline expires today. The Russian news agency,Itar tass, reports that Russian troops were preparing for action.

The Chechens' resolve shows no signs of weakening. Their leaders had earlier warned of a return to all-out fighting. The reason given this time was the Russians' failure to honour their promise to dismantle roadblocks.

This peace effort like so many others in the past appears doomed to failure.

Separatists had dismissed it from the start as little more than a cynical election ploy. Reports of renewed rocket attacks on Chechen villages this week, whether true or not, can only compound their anger and desire for revenge.

For the moment the cycle of violence looks set to repeat itself. Breaking it or ending it altogether has proved beyond the realms of everyone including international mediators. The key lies in finding a face-saving solution for both sides.

The man to do that may well be Lebed. A critic of the Chechen war from the outset, he has the advantage of credibility. He has a 'clean hands' reputation, military experience but more importantly he has not been involved in the war so far.

As Chechen spokesman Movladi Udugov put it, "He is someone who has not been stained by the blood of the Russian Chechen war...He has a wide margin of maneuver to stop the conflict."

Lebed has said he plans to visit the republic in the near future - a prospect that the Chechens have said they are "interested" in. Whether or not he has the full backing of Moscow to oversee a settlement remains to be seen.