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Russia: Chechen President Rallies Supporters

Grozny, Russia; 16 March 1999 (RFE/RL) - Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, under attack from opponents seeking to oust him, rallied tens of thousands of supporters in Grozny today and said the breakaway republic risks descending into anarchy. Maskhadov says his foes, including maverick commander Shamil Basayev, are pushing the territory into chaos and lawlessness by attempting to establish a parallel Islamic government in a bid to erode his power. Chechnya has run its own affairs since Russian troops left at the end of 1996, but no country has recognized its independence claim. The central government in Moscow maintains that Chechnya is a part of Russia, but has no means to control the events there. Russia has threatened to use force against Chechnya if Gennady Shpigun, a general in Russia's Interior Ministry, is not freed. Maskhadov has promised to free the general, who was kidnapped on March 5, but has warned Moscow against using force. Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin said today that investigators have made substantial progress toward freeing Shpigun, but rejected any possibility of Moscow paying a ransom to secure his release. Stepashin also denied that Moscow was planning to launch any military strikes against Chechnya over the affair. Maskhadov told the rally he hung up on Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov during their recent telephone conversation to protest his threats.