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Financial Times (UK)
January 22, 2003
Chechen rebel leaders look to compromise
By Andrew Jack in Moscow

Chechen rebel leaders yesterday signalled a willingness to compromise on demands for independence from Russia in exchange for guarantees to end human rights violations in the republic.

In an interview with the FT, Akhmed Zakayev, deputy to Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, said: "We are open to discussions. The important thing is international guarantees for the Chechen people. The form is less important."

Mr Zakayev, who is in London pending an extradition request from Russia, added: "At the moment we have no law at all in Chechnya: whether Russian, international or sharia."

The self-proclaimed republic of Ichkeria split away from Russia in the early 1990s, although it gained scant international recognition and was claimed back by Moscow in both the war of 1994-96 and during the current conflict.

Russia originally endorsed a peace process in 1996 that led to the internationally-monitored election of Mr Maskhadov as Chechen president the following year. He has led rebel forces since Russian soldiers launched fresh attacks in autumn 1999 after Chechen warlords invaded neighbouring Dagestan.

Mr Zakayev's comments are significant at a time when the Russian government has approved plans for a referendum within Chechnya on March 23 on a new constitution, which grants scant autonomy to the republic and stresses that it is an integral part of the Russian federation.

However, Mr Zakayev dismissed the initiative, which was endorsed by President Vladimir Putin at the end of the last year, saying: "There has never been a referendum anywhere during a war."

Many other Russian politicians and observers have also criticised the process surrounding the new constitution, arguing that it is impossible to hold a meaningful referendum during a conflict that continues to claim casualties daily. They also criticise the lack of consultation during its hasty drafting, and its suitability for Chechnya.

A few months ago, Mr Putin appeared to be softening his approach towards the conflict, but has taken a tough line again since the Moscow theatre siege last October, cutting off tentative negotiations with Mr Zakayev and instead seeking his arrest and trial on alleged terrorist charges.

Mr Zakayev, who rejects the charges, stressed that he had no connection with the Moscow siege.

In response to Mr Putin's association between the Chechen rebels and international terrorism, Mr Zakayev called for foreign peacekeepers to be brought into the republic, saying: "If this is about international terrorism, let's have an international response."

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