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Kremlin slaps down idea of Chechen rebel leader running for president
July 14, 2003

Russia's top spokesman on Chechnya Monday swiftly dismissed a rights official's proposal that Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov should stand in the breakaway republic's upcoming presidential vote.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky reiterated the government's official position that Maskhadov is ineligible for a rebel amnesty proposed by parliament in June and therefore unable to run for president in republic-wide elections in October.

"Maskhadov cannot apply for the amnesty, since several articles of the penal code under which he is accused do not fall under the amnesty that was declared in the republic," he told the Interfax news agency.

"He therefore cannot participate in the elections," the Kremlin official added.

The head of the presidential human rights commission, Ella Pamfilova, said earlier that Maskhadov was eligible for the amnesty, which applies to all Chechen separatists who hand in their arms, except foreigners and those accused of "serious crimes."

"Maskhadov has declared he is against terrorism," Pamfilova told reporters.

"He can be amnestied and once he is amnestied he can run in the election," she said.

"The more candidates there are representing influential groups, the better," she added.

Yastrzhembsky said the rights official's remarks were her "private opinion."

Putin has rejected calls by observers and rights groups to negotiate with Maskhadov and has linked him to terrorist actions such as last year's hostage crisis in a Moscow theatre.

The last elected leader of Chechnya, he was voted into a five-year term as president in January 1997 in internationally-supervised polls held after the end of the republic's first separatist war a few months earlier.

Yet it is unclear how much influence he actually wields in Chechnya.

Russian officials have repeatedly said Maskhadov would not be eligible for the amnesty, which is a step in Putin's controversial peace plan for Chechnya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the plan with a constitutional referendum sealing Chechnya's place within Russia in March. The next step is the presidential election set for October 5.

Chechen rebels have followed through on pledges to disrupt the plan, staging a series of suicide attacks in the breakaway southern republic as well as in Moscow in the past few months, killing close to 120 people.

A suicide attack on a Moscow rock concert killed 14 people this month.

Maskhadov has regularly condemned such attacks, casting himself as a moderate leader seeking to achieve the goal of Chechen independence through conventional military means.

Yet he has been branded a criminal by Moscow and Chechnya's pro-Russian leadership has offered a reward for information leading to his arrest.

The Kremlin's hand-picked leader for Chechnya, former mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, is widely expected to win the October 5 presidential poll.

The new Council of Europe rapporteur for Chechnya, Andreas Gross, called on Russia Sunday to broaden the political process in the republic to include Maskhadov's supporters.

Russian forces have been fighting Chechen separatists since October 1999, when they re-entered the republic three years after defeat in a 1994-96 war.

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