Maskhadov wins clear victory to be president


MODERATES in Russia last night breathed an audible sigh of relief after it became clear that Mr Aslan Maskhadov was heading for victory in the Chechen presidential election.

Mr Maskhadov, who negotiated the end of the 21-month war with Russia's army, had a landslide victory of 68.9 per cent with 95 per cent of ballots counted, the electoral commission said.

Second out of the 13 candidates was warlord Shamil Basayev, with about 16.3 per cent, followed closely by long-time independence figure Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

The result means there will be no second round run-off, which many feared could have led to violence. Pronouncing himself president while the last votes were still being counted, Mr Maskhadov said in quiet statesman-like tones that his first task was to "calm his people down". But he insisted that his country's independence was already a fact which Russia would sooner rather than later have to recognise formally.

Mr Maskhadov said: "There is only one thing to be done now. This independence should be recognised by all the states in the world, including Russia. But we are only going to pursue this using political methods."

The first step to international recognition of the election was provided by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose 72 international observers said they had found no serious discrepancies in the way the poll had been held.

The Russian president, Mr Boris Yeltsin, said after meeting his prime minister, Mr Victor Chernomyrdin, that he was satisfied with the results. Mr Maskhadov's victory leaves the way clear for a continuation of negotiations on Chechnya's relationship with Moscow, even though formidable problems remain

Mr Maskhadov said: "When the Russians understand that they have used all methods and that there is only one option left, we will sit down at the negotiating table and solve all the problems of who we are. We are ready for that tomorrow."

Mr Maskhadov, a career military officer who led the Chechen guerrilla resistance, outnumbered and outgunned by vastly superior Russian forces, has gained the reputation of being both a tough fighter and shrewd negotiator, capable of compromise with his foes. He used his short political career as prime minister of a coalition government formed as the Russians were pulling out their forces to court those Chechen villages in the northern half of the republic traditionally pro-Moscow and anti-separatist.

Reuter adds from Moscow: Mr Yeltsin gesticulated as he chatted with Mr Chernomyrdin on television yesterday. The president, who is recovering from pneumonia, has clearly lost weight.