#15 - JRL 7011
Russia ignores violence, sets Chechnya vote date
MOSCOW, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Chechnya will vote on a new constitution on March 23, Russia announced on Friday, brushing aside security concerns and pressing ahead with President Vladimir Putin's peace plan for the rebel republic.
Separatist rebels, who have fought Russian troops in the devastated region for most of the last decade, have rejected the referendum and the subsequent election of a local leader.
Chechnya's election commission ruled that the referendum be held on March 23 after it examined 13,200 signatures collected across the republic from Chechens supporting the vote, Itar-Tass news agency reported from the regional capital Grozny.
The decision comes less than a month after a bomb attack on government headquarters in Chechnya shattered Kremlin assertions that life in the region was returning to normal. More than 70 people died in the bombing of what was seen as the territory's most heavily guarded building.
But the attack, coming shortly after 129 people died when government troops ended the rebel occupation of a packed Moscow theatre, did not deter the Kremlin from pushing ahead with the idea of a popular vote to give the region a constitution and ultimately an elected leader.
Rebel leaders would be barred from standing in the presidential election, likely to be held several months after thl vote.
Guerrillas have dismissed such a poll as a Kremlin ruse to divert world attention from human rights abuses by Russian troops and portray Putin as a peacemaker.
It is also not clear how an election that excludes rebel leaders could help reduce the level of violence in the republic, where rebels kill Russian troops and pro-Moscow officials almost daily.
The two polls also raise the question of independent monitoring. Last month Moscow refused to extend the existing mandate of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the region.
Chechnya is also a no-go area for journalists because of official restrictions and the threat of kidnappings for ransom by local warlords.