February 14th 2002 · Reuters / Peter Graff · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

Maskhadov: West not fooled by Russia

MOSCOW, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Moscow has failed to convince the West the war in Chechnya is part of a global fight against terrorism, despite increasingly noisy rhetoric since September 11, the region's elected rebel leader said.

In written responses to questions submitted this week by Reuters, Aslan Maskhadov repeated an unconditional offer for talks, and said either side could phone the other at any time.

But the man who negotiated the end of a 1994-96 first Chechen war said the Kremlin was now stalling on talks and hiding "colonial" aims behind slogans of a fight against terror.

"It is clear you can mount an 'anti-terrorist operation' only against terrorists. So the entire Chechen people must be terrorists, and in the most horrible form -- Islamic ones.

"I can assure you, if tomorrow the West were to develop problems with Martians, then Martians would suddenly be found in Chechnya, and at least 60 Chechens on Mars," he wrote.

Maskhadov did not rule out that some of the foreign militants who have fought alongside Chechen fighters may have had ties to terrorists. But he said the total number of foreign fighters in Chechnya was only several dozen.

His lengthy responses ranged from often caustic satire of Russian positions, to a detailed legalistic defence of Chechnya's 1990 declaration of independence and a scathing indictment of military tactics he said brutalised civilians.

"Repression is limited only by their physical capabilities, and they have planes, helicopters, multiple rocket launchers and tens of thousands of trained killers, whipped up with cries of 'Kill, kill, kill!' and 'A good Chechen is a dead Chechen!"'


The West generally accepts Moscow's argument -- made ever more loudly since last September's attacks on the United States -- that some Chechen rebels have had ties to international Islamic militants including Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

But just how deep those ties go, and whether they extend to Maskhadov's mainstream pro-independence Chechen leadership, have become troubling questions as the West tries to adjust its stance in the wake of September 11.

Maskhadov said Moscow's effort to equate Chechnya with terrorism had failed.

"The meetings of my representatives with officials in the United States and several European countries allow me to conclude that since September 11, the West has not come to better sympathise with Russian claims, but to better understand just what the Russians are doing in the Chechen Republic.

"Despite the persistent requests of Russia, neither Chechnya as a whole, nor any individual Chechen, has been found in the list of terrorists distributed by the United States," he wrote.

Recent reporting from Afghanistan suggests the Chechen presence among al Qaeda fighters there may be limited.

An international humanitarian official in Kabul with extensive knowledge of the more than 3,000 Taliban and al Qaeda detainees held by U.S. and anti-Taliban Afghan forces told Reuters on Thursday he had yet to come across a single Chechen.

Anti-Taliban fighters in Afghanistan often called their foreign enemies "Arabs and Chechens," but by "Chechens" they may have been including Uzbek and Tajik militants from other, nearer parts of the ex-Soviet Union, based in Afghanistan's north.

The Bush administration clearly softened its criticism of Russia's behaviour in Chechnya in the immediate aftermath of the September attacks. But the effects have begun to wear off.

Washington praised President Vladimir Putin for launching peace talks at the end of September. But Russia abandoned the talks after a single meeting with a Maskhadov envoy in November.

Last month, after Russia resumed its policy of "sweeps," sealing off villages and rounding up young men, the U.S. State Department denounced "a continuation of human rights violations and the use of overwhelming force against civilian targets."

A U.S. official told Reuters this week: "We have always said that elements within Chechnya have links with international terrorism. Al Qaeda has done training in Chechnya. We have consistently called on the Chechens to take steps to dissociate themselves from international terrorism groups."

But he said Washington did not see Maskhadov as a terrorist, and that Moscow should distinguish terrorists from politicians.

"We have repeatedly expressed our belief that a political settlement is the only means of bringing a lasting peace to the region and denying terrorists a theater of operations."

A former Soviet artillery colonel, Maskhadov commanded rebel forces during the first Chechen war, but became Russia's main partner at peace talks. He negotiated a Russian withdrawal, signed a peace deal with president Boris Yeltsin and was elected president in 1997 with Moscow's blessing.

But in the years that followed, Chechnya became increasingly lawless and Moscow said Maskhadov had lost control. Hundreds of Russians were kidnapped and held by Chechen gangs for ransom.

In 1999 a Chechen guerrilla leader and his Arab-born deputy attacked a neighbouring Russian region, and within weeks several apartment blocks in Russian cities were blown up in the night.

Russian troops poured back into Chechnya in a "counter-terrorist operation" and refused talks with Maskhadov's envoys for more than two years, until the single meeting last November.

Maskhadov has repeatedly accused Russia of staging the 1999 apartment bombings to justify a new war in Chechnya, which Moscow denies. In the interview he said Russia had intentionally fuelled Chechen radicalism and lawlessness.

"When our republic's independence is recognised by the world, I can guarantee that Russia will no longer have its need for Chechen kidnappers and radicals seeking to spread their ideology to other parts of the Caucasus," he wrote.

"I believe the war will be stopped...when the strong of the world decide they no longer need anything from Russia."


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