Chechen rebel leader calls for personal meeting with Putin

Chechen rebel leader calls for personal meeting with Putin
Associated Press Writer
536 words
4 March 2005
Associated Press Newswires
(c) 2005. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

MOSCOW (AP) - Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov called for a one-on-one meeting with President Vladimir Putin, saying a brief talk could end the decade-long conflict in Chechnya, according to an interview posted Friday on a pro-rebel Web site.

"We believe that a 30-minute, frank tete-a-tete dialogue will be enough to stop the war, to explain to the president of the Russian Federation what the Chechens actually want ... and hear from Putin what he wants, what Russia wants in Chechnya," Maskhadov was quoted as saying on the Web site www.chechenpress.co.uk .

Maskhadov warned, however, that if Russian authorities refuse to negotiate with him, his militants will "stand till the end and the flame of this war's fire will engulf the whole North Caucasus" -- a reference to the restive southern Russian region that includes Chechnya.

Maskhadov -- who was elected president of Chechnya in 1997 during its de-facto independence but driven out of power by Russian forces in 1999 -- has called for talks before. A Maskhadov envoy signed a peace memorandum in Britain last month with representatives of a Russian rights group that wants the Kremlin to talk peace with rebels.

Putin repeatedly has refused to negotiate with Chechen rebels, labeling them terrorists, and Russian officials have emphasized that there is nothing to discuss with Maskhadov but his surrender, accusing him of backing terrorist attacks that have plagued Russia in recent years.

At the same time, some Russian officials say Maskhadov has little control over most of the militants in Chechnya. But Maskhadov said that militants under his command are fighting not only in Chechnya but in neighboring southern provinces.

"We have been forced to widen the front of our military resistance, additional sectors have been ordered to be set up -- in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkariya, Dagestan and others," Maskhadov said.

Russia's southern provinces have been plagued by violence, including the September school hostage-taking in the city of Beslan in which 330 people were killed.

"Russian people will constantly fear the possible revenge of suicide bombers in response to all the misdeeds committed by the FSB and federal troops in Chechnya," Maskhadov was quoted as saying. The FSB is the Federal Security Service, the main successor of the Soviet KGB.

Akhmed Zakayev, a Maskhadov envoy who lives in Britain, told The Associated Press the interview was authentic.

Russian forces pulled out of Chechnya after a 20-month war in 1994-1996. They rolled back in September 1999 after Chechnya-based rebels raided a neighboring province and after a series of apartment building explosions blamed on the militants.

Zakayev and representatives of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, a prominent Russian non-governmental organization that acts as a watchdog over the Russian military, signed a peace memorandum in Britain late last month, hailing it as a first step toward ending the war in Chechnya.

But a senior official in the Kremlin-backed Chechen government dismissed their talks as hopeless.

The Kremlin has refused to negotiate with rebel leaders since an unproductive meeting between Zakayev and a Putin envoy in November 2001.

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