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Chechens seek peace talks, but agenda differs
October 24, 2001
By Ron Popeski

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and Chechen separatists said Wednesday they hoped to hold peace talks within the next 10 days, but the two sides appeared divided from the outset over whether their discussions would focus on disarming the rebels.

The proposed talks would be the first contact between the Kremlin and the insurgents since Russia launched its second post-Soviet military drive in the region in 1999.

The issue was raised as Western countries have shown increasing understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertions that the Kremlin is fighting terrorists in Chechnya.

Putin, in a policy speech on Sept. 24, ruled out any compromise with the rebels and gave them 72 hours to start talks on disarmament with Russian officials. His deadline passed with no response from the rebels or Russian punitive action.

Putin's envoy in southern Russia, Viktor Kazantzev, first announced the prospect of talks, saying a Chechen aide of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov had wanted to discuss the president's latest initiatives to end the conflict in the region.

"Akhmed Zakayev called me to say that after long deliberations he was asking for a meeting here in Moscow to discuss proposals made in the statement of President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 24," Kazantsev said in televised remarks.

Saying that Putin's statement had focused on the disarming of illegal armed groups and "the procedure of integrating them into normal life," Kazantsev added: "I think this meeting will take place in the next 10 days."

But Zakayev, interviewed by NTV television, said talks had been under way for nearly a month on an agenda and disarming Chechen fighters could not be a precondition for the talks.

"Disarmament cannot be a condition for talks to begin," he said. Points for discussion, he said, included a halt to military activity and the return of large numbers of refugees.

"If no major events occur, I believe that within 10 days, such a meeting is possible. The moves we have noted toward reaching a peace settlement are still quite fragile and they should not be derailed by introducing broader issues."


Another rebel representative, Mayerbek Vachagayev, told Ekho Moskvy radio that preparations for the talks had dealt "solely with the format for future talks, nothing more."

That drew a rebuke from the Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who told Itar-Tass news agency that rebels should "get an understanding of political reality" that they had no authority in Chechnya.

Russia says it controls Chechen territory and portrays life as returning to normal under a pro-Moscow local administration. But attacks and ambushes kill several servicemen each week.

Putin's efforts to equate the Chechnya drive with the U.S.-led "anti-terrorist" campaign in Afghanistan appear to be paying off with Western governments easing up on accusations of human rights abuses and excessive use of force.

In recent weeks, the United States, Germany, Britain and France have said their stand on Chechnya has been altered by the events following last month's attacks on New York and Washington.

Analysts said that even assuming Maskhadov was ready for peace talks, most Chechen fighters take their orders not from him but from warlords like Shamil Basayev.

In continued violence in the region, Ekho Moskvy said a senior military officer had been killed by a bomb in Shali district southeast of Grozny. Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian military officials as saying their forces had wiped out a large number of rebels in operations in the past 24 hours.

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