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U.S. to blacklist Chechen guerrilla groups

WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has decided to blacklist three Chechen groups suspected of the attack on a Moscow theater last October, a State Department official said on Thursday.

The three groups, which the official declined to name, are expected to go on the list of groups whose assets in the United States must be frozen and to whom it is illegal to make financial contributions, he said.

They would be the first Chechen groups on the list and the decision illustrates the harder line Washington has started to take against the Chechen movement, which has been fighting for independence from Russia since at least the early 1990s.

It is likely to please the Russian government, which says Washington should treat the Chechen rebels in the same way as it treats Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda movement.

Washington is seeking Russian support for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.

The State Department official, who asked not to be named, said: "We are also consulting with other governments about placing these groups on various international listings on terrorist organizations."

One hundred and twenty-nine people were killed in October after Chechen guerrillas seized the packed Moscow theater to press their demand for Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. Most of the people were killed by gas injected into the theater by the Russian forces who brought the siege to an end.

Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev has said that he was behind the mass hostage-taking in the theater. Baseyev leads a group called the Command of the Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion "Riyadus Salihin."

The U.S. official said the State Department was going through the legal procedures for listing the groups and could not name them until a notice appears in the Federal Register.

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