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Chechen exile president slams Kremlin peace plan
January 21, 2003

NAZRAN, Russia (Reuters) - Chechnya's exiled leader Aslan Maskhadov, accused by the Kremlin of masterminding last year's Moscow theater siege, has denounced Russia's plan to stage a referendum as part of a peace plan for the rebel region.

Maskhadov, in recorded comments obtained Tuesday by Reuters, dismissed as a sham March's planned vote on a new constitution entrenching Chechnya firmly within Russia.

The country's leading human rights group, meanwhile, lauded a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights to accept Chechen complaints against Russian forces dispatched a second time to subdue separatists in 1999.

Following last October's theater siege in which 129 hostages died, Moscow said it was speeding up plans to establish a lasting peace in the province, including a March 23 referendum.

"The referendum is merely an affront to these unfortunate people," Maskhadov said, answering questions in an audio tape obtained by Reuters in the Caucasus on Russia's southern flank.

"I am convinced that no one, in Russia or outside it, is going to take the results of this voting seriously."

It was not clear where he recorded the tape.

Two months after Chechen rebels seized some 800 theater-goers in Moscow, suicide bombers destroyed a government building in Chechnya's capital Grozny, killing dozens of people.

Putin, whose resolve to crush separatism has boosted his political career, has opted to deal solely with Chechens who accept Russian rule. The Kremlin has refused to negotiate with Maskhadov, viewed in the West as a moderate.

Putin has promoted the referendum, and the subsequent election of a Chechen president, to Western governments which have criticized the behavior of Russian troops and urged the Kremlin to move toward a political settlement.

"You can talk to Chechens and you can reach agreements, but the thing I know for certain is that Chechnya will never again find itself under Russia's jurisdiction," said Maskhadov, elected in 1997 and ousted in Moscow's current military drive.


The Strasbourg-based European court said it would hear the cases of six Chechens who said the Russian military had violated their right to life and property and to receive a full legal hearing.

They also allege violations of a ban on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.

"The fact that people write to the prosecutor or to Strasbourg is good for the state. It is good that they reach for a pen and not for a gun," Alexander Cherkasov of the human rights group Memorial told reporters in Moscow.

Memorial, which worked to expose many excesses of the communist era and in two post-Soviet Chechnya campaigns, is backing the Strasbourg claimants. Human rights campaigners say abuses are widespread and perpetrated with impunity in Chechnya while officials speak of isolated, well-documented cases.

A 1996 peace deal gave the province de facto independence but Moscow sent troops back again in 1999 after bomb attacks in Russian cities blamed by the Kremlin on Chechen separatists.

The rebels have always denied responsibility for the blasts and Maskhadov has distanced himself from the October hostage-taking and the government building attack in December.

"I have always been against such acts. No one can control suicide bombers and no one can order them to kill themselves," he said in his latest comments. "These bombers are the dreadful face of an inhuman war, which ought to be ended by any means."

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