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Russian Troops Suspend Withdrawal from Chechnya

April 19, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ Russian troops suspended their withdrawal from Chechnya today following the deadly ambush of a military convoy this week in the separatist republic, an official said.

Doku Zavgayev, the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, told a news conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny that the withdrawal of thousands of troops has been stopped, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

The rebel ambush, in which dozens of soldiers were killed, prompted angry finger-pointing today among lawmakers and President Boris Yeltsin, all anxious to blame each other for the tragedy.

Yeltsin told journalists in the Kremlin that ``the military leadership is to blame and will be taken to account for the tragedy,″ ITAR-Tass reported.

But legislators went a step further, charging the government with poor handling of the army and asking the prosecutor-general to open a criminal investigation.

A statement adopted overwhelmingly by the State Duma called the attack ``one more link in the chain of bloody events, resulting from irresponsibility of the military commanders and an inadmissible attitude to the army on the part of the country’s top leaders.″

All factions in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, urged Yeltsin to declare a day of national mourning for the ``national tragedy.″

Ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky accused the top military commanders in Chechnya of trying to destroy the army.

Separatist fighters ambushed the convoy of army trucks Tuesday near the village of Yarysh-Mardy. The military command in Grozny confirmed today that 76 soldiers were killed and 54 wounded, ITAR-Tass said. Other reports put the death toll as high as 93.

Yeltsin said he was shaken by the attack, which he called ``a tragedy for Chechnya, for all of Russia and for the president.″ He said the convoy, accompanied by armed guards, was carrying food and medicines.

The area where the troops were attacked was ``quiet and peaceful, it was among the first to sign the peace accord. There were no militant separatists there, they (the rebels) entered the area for the purpose″ of attacking the convoy, ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying.

At the end of last month, Yeltsin announced a peace plan calling for a partial withdrawal of Russian troops, which began Monday when a regiment of Interior Ministry troops pulled out. Six battalions were to have left this week.

The president desperately needs the plan to succeed to boost his re-election chances in June. ``Despite the tragedy, I still favor the continuation of the implementation of the peace plan,″ he said today.

The Russian military has continued its attacks on Chechen rebel strongholds despite Yeltsin’s insistence that a unilateral cease-fire is holding.

ITAR-Tass today quoted officials in neighboring Ingushetia as saying Russian planes had bombed the mountainous Chechen village of Arshty, killing 10 people and injuring 25 in a daylight attack.

More than 30,000 people have died since Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994 to crush its declared independence from Moscow.

World leaders have urged the Kremlin the end the war, although, backing Yeltsin’s re-election bid, they are unlikely to raise the issue at this weekend’s international summit in Moscow on nuclear security and safety.

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