Chechnya's pro-independence president Aslan Maskhadov confirmed Saturday that his representative had held talks with the Russian authorities but insisted the rebels would not lay down their arms.
Maskhadov's press service meanwhile told AFP that the Chechen rebels had launched an overnight attack on Russian positions in the southeastern town of Kurchaloy, with deaths reported on both sides.
In an interview with the Russian daily Kommersant, Maskhadov said: "My representative Akhmed Zakayev has been in contact with (Russian presidential envoy) Viktor Kazantsev and his colleagues."
Friday's talks followed a 72-hour ultimatum Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin for Chechen rebels to discuss laying down their arms and returning to civilian life.
Fewer than a dozen weapons had been handed over by the time the ultimatum expired on Thursday night.
"We took up arms to defend ourselves and will only lay them down when we have received dependable guarantees of our safety," Maskhadov said. "Until now I do not see such guarantees."
He added that there had already been "such contacts" with representatives of Russian authorities "even before Putin's declaration."
He said that deputies of Chechnya's separatist parliament had also met in the past with Russian deputies in southern Russia and in Geneva.
However, Maskhadov failed to reassert Chechnya's independence from Moscow in the interview.
Russian troops stormed into Chechnya on October 1, 1999, launching an "anti-terrorist" operation that has since degenerated into a brutal guerrilla war which has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 federal troops and killed an undisclosed number of rebels and civilians.
A spokesman for hard-line fighters told AFP by telephone that heavy fighting was continuing around the towns of Vedeno, Shali and Argun where the rebels launched an offensive shortly after midnight Friday (2000 GMT).
He said many Russian soldiers had been killed and several armored vehicles destroyed -- MOSCOW (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)