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YELTSIN HALTS CHECHNYA STRIKES, CALLS FOR PEACE TALKS

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President Boris Yeltsin ordered an end to airstrikes that have ravaged the Chechen capital and said Tuesday he is ready for peace talks with the break-away republic.

At the same time, Yeltsin reasserted that Chechnya had no right to secede from Russia. The borders of Chechnya were under Russian control, and the "ring" around the capital, Grozny, "has tightened," he said in a television address this evening.Yeltsin said his order would "rule out the delivery of bomb strikes that may lead to civilian victims in Grozny," capital of the Chechen republic.

"The route to a political settlement is still open," he said.

Chechen leaders' reaction to the speech was not immediately known. But in an interview with the ITAR-Tass news agency before the speech, the republic's president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, showed no sign of backing down. He repeated his demand that Russian troops withdraw and said the Chechen side "doesn't want to spill Russian soldiers' blood."

Yeltsin sent up to 40,000 troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11 in an attempt to crush the republic's three-year drive for independence. The Kremlin fears other republics will follow Chechnya's example and try to secede.

"Russian soldiers are defending the integrity of Russia," Yeltsin said in his speech. "It is an essential condition for the existence of the Russian state. None of the territories has the right to secede from Russia."

"The regime in Grozny is illegitimate. It violates the fundamental norms of the constitution of the Russian Federation," Yeltsin said. He also said any Chechen resistance would be "suppressed."

Yeltsin had made no public comment on the Russian military offensive until Monday, and Tuesday's speech was his first full-scale public discussion of the invasion.

The Russian president said he had ordered senior officials to negotiate with the Chechens on a cease-fire and disarming their fighters. So far, the Chechens have refused to put down their weapons.

On Monday, Yeltsin rebuked his defense and interior ministers for the military operation, a newspaper reported Tuesday.

The daily Segodnya said the ministers were subjected to "extremely frank and sharp criticism" at Monday's meeting of Yeltsin's Security Council. The newspaper said it didn't "dare reproduce in print" the president's words.

Instead of a quick operation, the Russian offensive has dragged on more than two weeks. Russian warplanes have destroyed Grozny. Dozens of civilians have died in bombing raids, and tens of thousands have fled the city of 400,000.