MAGAS, Russia - Russian officials on Friday confirmed that long-rumored talks were being held with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and a top rebel commander, but the officials insisted that surrender is the rebels' only way out.
The talks, first revealed by President Vladimir Putin's regional envoy Viktor Kazantsev, were confirmed by Putin's spokesman for Chechnya Sergei Yastrzhembsky. They come as the 11-month conflict is in a bloody stalemate.
Russian troops occupy most of the republic but have been unable to wipe out insurgents in Chechnya's southern mountains or prevent them from infiltrating Russian-held cities, where they plant mines and launch hit-and-run attacks.
As the war bogs down, speculation has grown that Russia is looking for a way to end it, but the Kremlin repeatedly has said the rebels must surrender before any negotiations on a settlement could begin.
Yastrzhembsky insisted Friday that was still the case. He said the talks boil down to ''only and exclusively a proposal of capitulation,'' the Interfax news agency reported.
But the fighting has sapped Russian morale and resources: ''The military is also tired of war,'' Kazantsev said.
His statement that talks were taking place with Maskhadov and rebel commander Khamzat Gilayev came during a meeting with Chechen refugee representatives in Magas, in the republic of Ingushetia that borders Chechnya to the west.
Kazantsev refused to say precisely who was conducting the talks, where they were taking place or whether any progress had been achieved. But Konstantin Makeyev, a deputy to Yastrzhembsky, said the pro-Russian administrator of Chechnya, Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, was trying to persuade Maskhadov to lay down arms.
Even if an agreement is reached, it is unclear how many of the estimated 2,000 insurgents might respect it. Chechnya's rebels are not under a unified command, and many are loyal to warlords who disdain Maskhadov. Just a day earlier, Gilayev said fighters were preparing a new large offensive.
Meanwhile, Russian forces on Friday pounded suspected rebel positions outside the Chechen capital with heavy artillery, the military said.
Military officials said the strikes were aimed at some 200 rebels who had gathered south and southeast of the Grozny suburb of Khankala, where Russian military headquarters in the area are located.
The military claimed to have killed and wounded rebels, but gave no numbers. Both the Russian and Chechen sides regularly exaggerate the other's losses and minimize their own.
Russian troops are trying to subdue Chechen independence fighters in a renewal of a 1994-1996 war in which the rebels forced Russian troops to withdraw. Moscow sent its troops back in in September following raids from militants based in Chechnya into Russian territory and the death of some 300 people in apartment bombings blamed on Chechen terrorists.