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Russia's Muslims leery of Kremlin support for US Afghan campaign

MOSCOW, Oct 15 (AFP) - The Kremlin's unprecedented support for the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan has irritated and in some cases angered leaders of Russia's Muslim community, comprising up to one in seven of the country's population.

Though there is no question of their taking to the streets to oppose the US bombing raids on Afghanistan, many of Russia's Muslims regard the campaign with a wary eye, and some of their leading figures are outspokenly hostile.

"I condemn these bombardments not just as a Muslim and a mufti but also as a human being. The Americans want to show us that they rule the world," said grand mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin, based at Ufa in central Russia, where he heads Russia's largest Muslim organisation.

"It's as if two or three terrorists had taken 50 bus-travellers hostage and in order to punish them all the passengers had to be shot," Tadzhuddin told the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily.

Russia's other grand mufti, the Moscow-based Sheikh Ravil Gayinutdin, told AFP he approved "taking action against terrorists" but considered "unacceptable that the Afghan population should suffer from the American bombardments."

Gayinutdin warned that a decision by the Kremlin to send Russian troops into Afghanistan or to take part in the bombing could have "serious consequences for Russia."

Dmitry Makarov, an analyst at Moscow's Institute for Arabic Studies, noted that "because of Washington's Middle East policies, seen as pro-Israeli, anti-US sentiment is widespread among Russian Muslims, and they would take an extremely dim view of Russia joining with the Americans in striking at a Muslim country."

He added that Moscow "is already faced with a holy war in Chechnya, and has no intention of being drawn back into Afghanistan," where it suffered a humiliating defeat in 1979-89 following the invasion ordered by then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Russia's grand muftis, both of whom are generally pro-Kremlin, officially back the Russian "anti-terrorist" campaign in Chechnya, the mainly Muslim southern republic where separatists, including a radical Wahhabite minority, are fighting a guerrilla war for independence.

Putin has seized the opportunity provided by the US anti-terrorist campaign triggered by the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington to compare the Chechen separatists to radical Islamic terrorists, an interpretation that Gaynutdin disputes.

"Chechnya is an internal Russian affair, which is not the case with the US operation in Afghanistan," he said.

The head of the Russian Islamic Committee, the noted radical Geidar Dzhemal, went much further, describing the US intervention in Afghanistan as a "new form of colonial war."

And Abdul-Vakhid Niyazov, a deputy in Russia's State Duma (lower house of parliament) with the pro-Kremlin Unity party, warned that the US strikes "look very much like an aggression against a Muslim people."

Leading figures in Russia's mainly Muslim republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkorstan were also critical of the US strikes.

"More effective measures could be taken to eliminate (Osama) bin Laden," the Saudi dissident held chiefly responsible for last month's terror attacks, said Timur Akulov, advisor to Tatar President Mintimer Shayimyev.

Russia's Sunni Muslim population is generally believed to comprise around 20 million people, or one in seven of the total 145 million population, but the state statistics committee has set the figure at nearer 14 million, or one in ten.

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