One of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's most daring pre-election promises threatened to go up in flames Sunday when fighting broke out in Chechnya despite a ceasefire which formally went into effect on Saturday.
Four Russian soldiers were killed and at least five others injured when their tank ran over a land-mine Sunday in the Chechen capital Grozny.On Saturday, Russian forces and Chechen separatists fought pitched battles in the contested southwest corner of Chechnya.
The fighting threatens to discredit Yeltsin's claim last week, on a lightning visit to Chechnya, that the war was won.
The ceasefire agreement, signed in a high-profile ceremony in the Kremlin last week by Russian officials and rebel leaders, was seen as a brilliant piece of campaigning by Yeltsin, who faces a strong challenge from Communist rivals before the June 16 presidential election.
But now that it has been violated just hours after coming into effect, the pact could seriously tarnish Yeltsin's political image.
Over the weekend in the hills of Chechnya, separatist field commanders, believed to be crucial to any lasting peace, were skeptical about the ceasefire and warned that their commitment to independence had not wavered.
"If I speak the truth, I do not believe that Yeltsin will keep his word," said Doku Makhaiev, commander of separatist forces in southwest Chechnya, cradling a Kalashnikov in his lap as he sat in the courtyard of his village home in Gekhi.
To the sound of gun battles in the nearby forest, Makhaiev said he and his men would abide by the ceasefire unless they were attacked. But, in a sentiment echoed by many Chechens, he warned that the Kremlin meeting last week had not swayed the rebels from their commitment to full independence.
"The battle for sovereignty, for independence, has been going on for one and a half years," said Makhaiev, a carpenter who sold his horses to buy guns and join the Chechen resistance when Russian forces first entered the republic in 1994.
"We have suffered too much to stop now," said Makhaiev, who has lost three brothers in the fighting. "Of course, we do not want to fight, but there can be no road back. We will fight to the last Chechen."
In a sign that even if Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the former poet who became leader of the separatist forces last month, was willing to compromise he might encounter stiff resistance from his field commanders, Makhaiev said he had been against the Kremlin meeting from the outset.
"It is Yeltsin who began the war, and I did not think we should give him points ahead of the elections," Makhaiev said.
Russian soldiers were equally skeptical.
"Yeltsin is cunning and he is collecting votes," said Andrei, a 19-year-old soldier, standing bare-chested on top of a tank at the Russian military's heavily fortified airport headquarters.
"But the war will never end here," he said. "It will still be going on in 2000."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)