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DEADLY CLASH IN CHECHNYA FAILS TO DERAIL PEACE TALKS

Fires smoldered Tuesday near a police station in Argun following a battle between Russian and Chechen fighters, but peace talks between the two sides appeared to have weathered the disruption.

On Monday, Russian forces bombarded and stormed the Chechen town, nine miles east of the capital of Grozny, after more than 200 separatist rebels seized its police station in defiance of a July 30 cease-fire.At least four rebels and one Russian soldier were killed during the battle, the worst in the southern republic in months. Argun had been virtually razed in fighting this winter, and finally fell to the Russians in March.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Tuesday the latest clash would not be allowed to derail peace efforts, and Russian negotiations were to arrive later Tuesday in Grozny for more talks on ending the war.

"These (peace) processes must not be stopped and we will not stop them," Chernomyrdin said during a visit to the Siberian city of Barnaul, the Interfax news agency reported.

But Chernomyrdin also said anyone who tried to sabotage the peace efforts would "pay dearly," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

Last week, Chechen guerrillas began disarming, and the first unit of Russian troops pulled out of Chechnya on Saturday - the strongest sign yet of conciliation in the 8-month-old war.

The Chechens who seized the police station apparently managed to slip through the Russian cordon around Argun. While some Russian tanks remained at the town's exits Tuesday, most headed back to their bases elsewhere in Chechnya.

In the town Tuesday, onlookers jumped as Russian soldiers exploded a mine that remained in the police station, and grieving Chechens whose homes were destroyed in the fighting tried to salvage belongings.

Bibulak Gayerbekov, a doctor in Argun, said four rebels died and at least six others were wounded since skirmishing began. "All the fighters have run away and we're left here to suffer," he said.

Emma Surkhayeva, a 30-year-old police officer who worked in the police station, tearfully recounted hiding in a cellar and listening to the Russian bom-bard-ment, which ended early Tuesday.

She pointed to jagged holes in her iron gate, where shrapnel hit. Her cow, also caught in the blast, lay dead on the street.

Russian military officials told Associated Press Television that one Russian soldier was killed, and two army soldiers and 12 special forces troops were injured in the fighting.