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Chechen rebels see "provocation" in Russian talk of disarmament

MOSCOW, Oct 24 (AFP) - Russia claimed a major breakthrough Wednesday in the two-year Chechen war, saying the rebel leadership had requested disarmament talks, a claim immediately dismissed as a "provocation" by the separatists.

President Vladimir Putin's special envoy Viktor Kazantsev said top Chechen spokesman Akhmed Zakayev had telephoned him in a bid to set up a meeting in Moscow to discuss the procedure for disarming the rebels.

Zakayev, a senior aide to Chechen separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, "called me this morning and asked for a meeting to be organised in Moscow to discuss questions recently raised by President Putin," Kazantsev said.

Last month Putin held out the prospect of peace talks once the rebels had laid down their arms, and named Kazantsev as the chief contact person for rebels who wished to take up the offer.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel, indicating a possible peaceful solution to the conflict," Kazantsev told journalists Wednesday after giving his account of Zakayev's call.

But Zakayev himself later dismissed as "provocation" the Russian claims that the Chechen leadership was even ready to discuss giving up its weapons.

And he warned that Kazantsev risked scuppering fledgling peace moves by misrepresenting the rebels' position in the media.

"We have had telephone contacts (with Kazantsev) for three or four weeks, in the course of which the question of disarmament was not discussed and could not be discussed," Zakayev told AFP by phone.

"Kazantsev's statement was a provocation," he added. "By making it, he has put at risk the process of talks which has begun to show itself."

Another top Maskhadov aide, Mairbek Vachagayev, confirmed the beginning of contacts between Kazantsev and Zakayev, a former Chechen deputy prime minister, but said the talks had not yet progressed to substantive issues.

"It is just a question at the moment of discussing the form of the beginning of a dialogue between Moscow and Grozny," Vachagayev told Moscow's Echo radio.

But Putin's chief spokesman on the Chechen conflict, Sergei Yastrzhembsky reacted to Vachagayev's comments by saying the rebels should not interpret contacts with Kazantsev as the start of a peace process.

"Power in Grozny does not belong to those who are hiding out in the forests and mountains of Chechnya," he was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS.

"I wish Maskhadov's representatives would realise the tough political reality of the day before the meeting in Moscow," Yastrzhembsky added.

After previously ruling out talks of any kind with Chechen rebels, Putin caught the separatists off-guard on September 24 when he cited mooted the prospect of peace negotiations if the rebels first surrendered their arms.

Maskhadov was elected as president of the separatist republic in 1996 in a poll overseen by the OSCE, the pan-European security body, but Moscow said it no longer recognized his legitimacy when it sent in troops in October 1999.

Pro-independence guerrillas in the North Caucasus republic have killed thousands of Russian troops and assassinated dozens of Chechens working for the pro-Moscow administration and police, branding them as traitors.

Public support for the Russian "anti-terrorist" operation has fallen sharply as casualties continue to mount with no end to the war in sight.

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