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Chechnya: Lebed In Grozny To Prevent Russian Assault

Grozny, 21 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian security chief Aleksandr Lebed has arrived in the Chechen capital of Grozny to try to prevent an all-out Russian assault on the separatist-held city. Russian military commanders have threatened to retake the city by force starting tomorrow unless the rebels leave.

Lebed, who arrived at a Russian military base at Khankala outside Grozny, told reporters that he was intent on bringing peace to the breakaway republic. Lebed is due to present his plan on settling the Chechen crisis to President Boris Yeltsin by August 26.

Lebed met Russian commander Vyacheslav Tikhomirov and said he would hold talks later today with the separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and with the rebel military commander, Aslan Maskhadov.

Meanwhile, the RFE/RL correspondent reporting from the Chechen capital said that thousands of civilians continue to flee Grozny as tomorrow's deadline for the threatened Russian offensive approaches.

The civilians, among them ethnic Russians, the elderly and the injured, fled as Russian forces continued to bombard suspected rebel positions. A senior Russian military doctor in Grozny told RFE/RL that thousands of civlians are still stranded in the besieged city.

Russian forces are reportedly launching aerial and artillery strikes on suspected Chechen fighter positions in Grozny. An Itar-Tass correspondent reported that parts of the city were blanketed in smoke and that buildings were on fire as a result of the Russian onslaught. Tass earlier reported that three rings of Russian troops had surrounded the Chechen fighters and that the fighters' supplies were dwindling.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov says the acting Russian commander in Chechnya acted on his own initiative in threatening to bomb Grozny. Rodionov, quoted by Itar-Tass, said he had nothing to do with the ultimatum.

Konstantin Pulikovsky had been "reprimanded" for ordering on Monday civilians out of Grozny and warning an attack could be launched as soon as tomorrow, he said.

Rodionov said "someone had provoked" Pulikovsky into the threat and that the general had acted wrongly. Rodionov is in the southern Russian city of Volgograd meeting with local military officers.

The RFE/RL correspondent earlier today quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying Rodionov and another general would lead the alleged attack.

Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, who Russian officials said returned to the post as top Russian commander in Chechnya after a vacation, has reaffirmed his substitute's threat. Tikhomirov today vowed that Chechen separatists would not live to hear another warning from him before he launched an assault to retake Grozny, which the separatists stormed on August 6.