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Kremlin Starts Talks With Chechens
November 18, 2001

MOSCOW (AP) - A prominent representative of Chechnya's rebels met with an envoy of President Vladimir Putin on Sunday for the first face-to-face talks on ending hostilities since renewed war broke out in the separatist region two years ago.

Viktor Kazantsev, Putin's envoy for Chechnya, met behind closed doors at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 international airport with Akhmed Zakayev, a representative of Chechnya's rebel president Aslan Maskhadov. Zakayev flew in from Turkey.

Kazantsev said the two-hour meeting ``went exclusively along the lines of the recent statement'' by Putin, according to the Interfax news agency.

He was referring to a speech Putin made Sept. 24 outlining Russia's response to the terror attacks in the United States, in which he urged Chechen rebels to discuss disarming and abandoning their separatist fight.

``The parties aired their intention to seek a lasting peace in Chechnya,'' Kazantsev's adviser Maxim Fedorenko said, according to Interfax.

The war has been locked in a bloody stalemate for more than a year: Russian forces have not fulfilled Putin's 1999 vow to crush the rebels, and while the insurgents kill Russian soldiers in ambushes and mine blasts almost every day, they have not mounted large-scale attacks.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the worldwide response appear to have profoundly affected the war in Chechnya. Analysts say the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign means the rebels can no longer expect aid Russia claims they receive from Islamic extremist organizations abroad.

At the same time, Putin's support for the campaign has been accompanied by efforts to bring Russia closer to Western economic and security organizations whose members have accused Russia of using excessive force in Chechnya.

Russia insists it is fighting international terrorism in Chechnya. After Putin signaled close cooperation with the anti-terror campaign, the United States softened its criticism, endorsing Russia's allegations of ties between the rebels and Osama bin Laden.

During a summit with the Russian leader last week, President Bush said the United States is ``encouraged by President Putin's commitment to a political dialogue in Chechnya.''

Kazantsev and Zakayev had spoken by telephone several times since Putin's statement, but the two had not met in person. Kazantsev said the dialogue would continue, but did not say when.

Putin, who built his popularity largely by taking a tough stance on Chechnya, had repeatedly rejected Western calls for a negotiated settlement of the latest war there, which began in 1999. As prime minister that year, he vowed rebels would be ``rubbed out'' even in toilet stalls.

But as the war dragged on with no end in sight, Russian officials warmed to the idea of talks, although insisting they center on rebel disarmament.

Even Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov spoke favorably of the talks on Sunday, saying ``dialogue is always better than war,'' according to Interfax.

However, he raised concerns that with negotiations, ``the situation might again begin to rot and smell like Khasavyurt,'' the town where Russians and Chechens signed a peace agreement in 1996 after a 20-month war.

Russia pulled its forces out of Chechnya in that agreement, leaving it with de facto independence. Crime, including ransom kidnappings, became widespread and the Chechen government, plagued by factional disputes, exerted little control.

Russian forces returned in September 1999, following incursions by Chechnya-based rebels into neighboring Dagestan and after apartment-house bombings in Russia that officials blamed on rebels.

Even if a new peace agreement is reached, it is unclear how widely it would be respected. Chechnya's rebels are loyal to various warlords and Maskhadov is believed to have influence over only a fraction of the insurgents.

Russian forces now control most of Chechnya, but its soldiers are still dying in rebel attacks and few top separatist leaders have been captured or killed.

An official in Chechnya's Russian-backed administration said Sunday that nine Russian servicemen were killed and 24 wounded in rebel attacks and land mine explosions in the preceding 24 hours.

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