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#16 - JRL 7252
No talks with Chechen rebels: Russian defense minister
July 16, 2003

The Russian government will not hold peace talks with the leadership that commands some 1,300 separatist rebels fighting a bloody war in breakaway Chechnya, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Wednesday.

Ivanov said he had definitively excluded holding talks with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, despite the urgings of rights groups.

"I absolutely exclude this -- it's really not possible," Interfax quoted Ivanov as saying during a visit to Chechnya.

"To those who recommend we launch talks with Maskhadov, I always invite them to start talks with Mullah Omar. It's the same thing," he said, referring to the radical leader of Afghanistan's fallen Taliban regime.

Following the September 11 attacks on the United States -- organized by Taliban ally Osama bin Laden -- Russian officials have framed their war against Chechen separatists as part of the US-led "war on terror."

They have refused talks with rebels and have instead continued military strikes on the republic alongside a peace plan meant to develop political institutions.

The Kremlin has offered the mainly Muslim republic limited autonomy as part of the peace plan and presidential elections in Chechnya are set for October 5.

Ivanov said Maskhadov is not eligible to run. He is Chechnya's last elected leader, voted into the five-year presidency in 1997 but later disavowed and branded a "terrorist" by Moscow.

The Russian defense minister said around 1,300 rebels were fighting federal troops, who swept into the republic in October 1999 and now number around 80,000.

"Currently on Chechen territory there are around 1,200 to 1,300 active rebels, uncompromising bandits, with whom you can only have one conversation -- their destruction," Ivanov said.

Yet Ivanov said the main fighting in Chechnya was over.

"If we're talking about the possibility of large battles in Chechnya, I practically exclude this," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Chechen rebels have stepped up attacks in recent months with a series of deadly suicide attacks that have killed some 120 people.

They also regularly stage attacks on Russian forces, with reports of daily casualties continuing to pour in from the war-torn republic.

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