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Yeltsin fires 3 top aides

President Boris Yeltsin dismissed three key ministers of the so-called "war party" within his Cabinet who have pressed to resolve the conflict in Chechnya with military force.

The firing of half of his innermost Kremlin circle Friday almost certainly ensures that Yeltsin's government will survive today's scheduled vote of no-confidence in the lower house of Parliament.

Yeltsin accepted resignations from counterintelligence chief Sergei Stepashin, Interior Minister Viktor Yerin and Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov.

Replacements weren't immediately announced.

The president made the "difficult" decision because of their "miscalculations and shortcomings," a spokesman said.

The move was a heavy concession to democratic and women's blocs that had insisted on the scalps of the "power ministers" for botching a hostage crisis in southern Russia in which 70 separatist Chechen fighters kept the nation paralyzed for a week.

The sweeping and unexpected nature of the shakeup seemed to signal that Yeltsin has come down _ temporarily at least _ on the side of the Kremlin's so-called "peace party," which believes Chechnya cannot be pacified except through negotiations.

One architect of the Chechnya war who kept his job was Yeltsin's close friend Pavel Grachev, the defense minister, who contends he had nothing to do with the June 17 commando raid on a hospital in Budyonnovsk that failed to free more than 1,000 hostages.

Stepashin became head of the internal intelligence service in 1994 and bears responsibility for plunging Russia into a "covert" war in Chechnya last fall whose failure led Yeltsin to launch a full-scale invasion in December.

It was Stepashin's agency that contracted Russian military officers as mercenaries to join the Chechen opposition fighting Chechnya's independence-minded president.

Yerin has been minister of interior since January 1992. His standing with the president was cemented during the October 1993 insurrection, when his Interior Ministry troops came to Yeltsin's aid and assaulted Communist and ultranationalist parliamentarians holed up in their headquarters at the Russian White House after rampaging through city streets.

Now, Yerin is taking the blame for the failed attempt to free the Budyonnovsk hostages by storm.

Yegorov has been minister of nationalities since May 1994. He was elevated to the post of deputy prime minister shortly after supporting the decision to dispatch troops to Chechnya in December.

Gore in Moscow: Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin concluded two days of talks Friday by signing a $15-billion oil exploration deal and making progress in controlling weapons sales to third countries.

But there was no agreement on Russia's planned sale of a nuclear reactor to Iran, which the United States opposes.