International News Electronic Telegraph
Thursday 22 August 1996
Issue 457

Lebed calls off assault on Grozny
By Nanette van der Laan in Moscow and Robin Gedye

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Chechens release kidnapped British aid worker

RUSSIA'S security chief last night called off an all-out assault on Grozny, planned for today, in an apparent reaction to international outrage. As President Clinton appealed for an end to bloodshed, and the Kremlin appeared in chaos and the army unsupervised, Alexander Lebed travelled to the region to broker a ceasefire with Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of the Chechen rebels holding Grozny.

Before the meeting, just south of the Chechen capital, Gen Lebed pledged that there would be no ultimatum and no assault on Grozny, despite a threat by the acting army commander that the rebels should leave the city or face an attack in 48 hours. The ultimatum, issued by Gen Konstantin Pulikovsky, now replaced, had been a "bad joke" which would never be repeated, Gen Lebed said.

Mr Clinton had sent a letter to President Yeltsin appealing for the attack to be halted as the first bombs began falling on Grozny prematurely yesterday afternoon as terrified refugees filled the few escape routes from the city.

Washington noted that Mr Yeltsin, who had vanished, reportedly suffering from a heart condition, was supposed to be returning to Moscow to take control.

But with senior military commanders issuing conflicting orders as they jostled for authority and Mr Yeltsin's whereabouts a mystery, there had been little confidence that the appeal would have much impact.

On Monday, Gen Pulikovsky threatened to attack Grozny in 48 hours with all the means at his disposal unless the rebels pulled out. Yesterday, Igor Rodionov, the Russian Defence Minister, said that Gen Pulikovsky had "made an error".

'One hundred refugees were killed when an iron bridge which they were crossing was attacked'

British and Irish volunteers delivering emergency medical supplies to Grozny gave dramatic accounts of scenes of panic as civilians tried to flee before the army carried out its threat. The volunteers, from the London-based Medical Emergency Relief International, said that shells were falling on Grozny, scattering refugee columns. Parts of the city were ablaze.

The team of seven, including five Britons and one Irishman, drove the last aid convoy into Grozny before the ultimatum expired. Rent Gorter, the Dutch leader of the relief team, said the hasty evacuation had caused chaos along the few escape roads which were not being bombed or mined.

"Roads out of the city are choked with vehicles flying white flags and laden with people and belongings," he said. "Fighting can be heard in the streets and helicopter gunships can be seen overhead. Mortar and artillery shells are blocking the way for many people. One hundred refugees were killed when an iron bridge which they were crossing was attacked."

While aid workers believe that up to 150,000 of Grozny's 400,000 people will stay, traffic leaving the city was jammed for miles. A man told them that his home had just been destroyed for the third time. "How can I believe in a future for which I should rebuild my house again?".

Mr Gorter said: "Doctors in the few remaining clinics are preparing for an influx of casualties which may run into thousands. At Hospital 5, doctors sent three truckloads of wounded out of the city. They were still treating 12 seriously injured people in the hospital cellar.

"While the convoy was delivering supplies, fighting broke out near Hospital 2. We put 10 mothers and their children and an old man on crutches into our Land Rovers for evacuation."

Meanwhile, confusion reigned in Moscow over who was responsible for the latest crisis. Mr Rodionov said he had "nothing to do with the ultimatum" and had reprimanded Gen Pulikovsky for issuing it.

The newspaper Izvestia, which called for Gen Pulikovsky to be replaced, said that he was obsessed with avenging the death of his son, killed in the Chechen war. His superior, Gen Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, who had returned to Grozny from holiday, had reassumed his command.

Asked why Russia had resumed fighting, Emil Pain, a presidential adviser, said: "There are huge economic interests that would like to see the war continue."

President Yeltsin has not been seen since Aug. 9. Pavel Voshchanov, his former press secretary, said in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda that Mr Yeltsin needed an operation. "The best informed Kremlin sources have confirmed that surgery is necessary."

He said that Mr Yeltsin was no longer running the Kremlin. Anatoly Chubais, head of administration, was in charge.

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