Chechnya Pleads For Peace

Chechnya's leader said another full-fledged war in the rebel republic would again result Â"in Russia's shame and defeatÂ" and he urged Moscow to seek a peaceful solution to the escalating conflict.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov criticized Russia for refusing to hold peace negotiations and for calling his government illegitimate, a reversal of its previous position.

Â"Russia has launched a full-scale war against Chechnya, breaking the peace treaty signed by the Chechen and Russian presidents,Â" Maskhadov said in comments published Friday in the newspaper Kommersant.

Â"In this situation I had no other choice but to declare war.Â"

Russian forces invaded the renegade territory two weeks ago and now control the northern third of Chechnya. The Russians want a security zone to prevent Muslim militants in Chechnya from attacking neighboring regions in southern Russia, but Moscow has not ruled out additional military moves against the territory.

Maskhadov is a former Soviet army officer who helped lead the outmanned and outgunned rebels in the 1994-96 war with Russia, which ended with a peace agreement that gave Chechnya effective independence.

He won an overwhelming election victory in 1997 in a ballot that international monitors said was fair. Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent congratulations, and Russia said it wanted to rebuild relations with Chechnya, though it has steadfastly refused to recognize the territory's claim of independence.

But Maskhadov has been unable to rein in Chechnya's warlords. Russian leaders now describe Maskhadov's government as unlawful, and are trying to build support for a parliament made up of Chechens in exile.

Â"If the current Chechen leadership is illegitimate, what about the treaty signed by myself and the Russian president in 1997?Â" Maskhadov said. Â"By the way, Yeltsin congratulated me upon election.Â"

Russian planes and artillery continued to pound Chechen targets Friday on several fronts, the military said.

Four soldiers were killed and one was wounded inside Chechnya, the military said. Four more soldiers were killed and two seriously wounded in neighboring Dagestan when several artillery shells detonated on the back of truck traveling toward the Chechen border.

Maskhadov said the Russian military campaign has inflicted far more casualties on civilians than on Chechen militants. A total of 450 civilians in Chechnya have been killed in the past two weeks, he said.

Among the combatants, 20 Chechen fighters and about 100 Russian soldiers have been killed, he said. The Russians have provided much lower casualty figures for their own troops.

In one of the more gruesome episodes of the conflict, a bus carrying refugees was hit by a Russian tank round Tuesday, killing 41 people, according to Chechen officials.

Video footage showed rescue workers removing bloodied bodies from the bus, whilchildren and old men sat dazed, with blood covering their faces. Woman sobbed over bodies lying on the ground next to the bus.

Asked about the attack, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev denied that it happened and dismissed the report as disinformation.

Meanwhile, the refugee flow from Chechnya to neighboring Ingushetia has topped 133,000, but food, tents and other vital supplies are still lacking, according to the territory's leader.

Ingushetia President Ruslan Aushev said Friday that 14,000 refugees had arrived during the previous 24 hours, the biggest one-day total so far.

Â"We have an acute shortage of food, baby food, warm clothes, blankets, and even more important tents, trailers and stoves,Â" he told the Interfax news agency. Â"If the situation does not change, people will have to spend the winter out in the open.Â"

Russia sent ground troops into Chechnya after weeks of airstrikes, aiming to wipe out Islamic militants who invaded neighboring Dagestan twice this summer and who are blamed for a series of apartment explosions that killed about 300 people in Russia in September.

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