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#5 - JRL 7247
Chechnya Gets Presidential Candidate
July 14, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) - A little-known businessman became the first person to declare his intention to run for president of Chechnya, officials said Monday, in an Oct. 5 election the Kremlin hopes will help end the nearly four-year conflict in the breakaway republic.

Rebels continued their hit-and-run attacks in Chechnya, killing 10 Russian servicemen over the past 24 hours, an official in Kadyrov's administration said on condition of anonymity. Three pro-Moscow Chechen policemen were killed when their car hit a land mine.

Said-Khamzat Gairbekov informed Chechnya's election commission that he intends to run, said Bulaisari Arsakhanov, the commission's deputy chairman, according to the Interfax news agency. He must collect signatures from 20,000 people - 2 percent of Chechnya's voters - to get his name on the ballot.

Gairbekov, 60, has lived for several decades in Russia's southern Astrakhan region, where he is the deputy director of a construction company, Interfax said.

Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed acting president, Akhmad Kadyrov, is widely believed to be running, though he has not officially declared his candidacy.

Russian officials are pushing elections as part of their peace plan.

The first step was a March referendum in which Chechen voters approved a new constitution, cementing the region's status as part of Russia. Then, last month, the Russian parliament passed an amnesty for rebels not accused of serious crimes.

U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow praised the efforts toward peace in an interview published Monday.

``The more the political process succeeds, the more the terrorists will be marginalized,'' Interfax quoted him as saying.

However, Vershbow said ``considerable additional effort'' would be needed to ensure successful elections, adding that the electoral process must be open and all candidates must have media access.

Vershbow said the amnesty should be applied as widely as possible to allow those who have not committed serious crimes to join the political process.

Ella Pamfilova, head of President Vladimir Putin's human rights commission, said Monday that rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov should be allowed to run for president.

Other Kremlin officials have called Maskhadov a terrorist, though the former Chechen president denies involvement in attacks against civilians.

``If Maskhadov says he opposes terror and is able to prove it, this means he is also eligible for amnesty and could well run for president,'' Pamfilova said, according to Interfax. ``The more people in the elections who are somebody, the more likely it is that ... the people will have a real choice.''

Independent human rights groups have criticized the Kremlin's peace efforts, saying the only way to end the war is through negotiations. They fear the election is simply an attempt to legitimize Kadyrov's control and say no free vote can take place in conditions of war.

Russian troops have been bogged down in Chechnya since 1999 when they returned following rebel raids on a neighboring region and a series of deadly apartment-house bombings in Russian cities that were blamed on Chechens. Before that, Russian forces who battled Chechen separatists from 1994-96 were forced to retreat, leaving the region de facto independent.

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