February 12th 2002 · Reuters / Tara FitzGerald · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

Yastrzhembsky: Russia says will talk to Chechens on its terms

MOSCOW, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Russia's top spokesman on Chechnya, responding to renewed Western criticism of Kremlin policy, said on Tuesday Moscow was ready to hold further talks with rebels -- but on its own terms.

President Vladimir Putin's swift support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the September 11 attacks led to an easing of Western criticism of Moscow's crackdown in Chechnya. But leaders in the West have now renewed calls for a political solution in the troubled region.

Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky told Reuters that in principle the Russian government was still ready to hold talks with the separatists.

"Not to shake hands, but to discuss the agenda put forward by the federal side," he said in an interview.

Thousands of Russian servicemen and civilians have been killed since Moscow sent in forces, first in 1994 and then again in 1999, to try to crush a separatist rebellion in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus region.

Rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev and Kremlin representative Viktor Kazantsev met at a Moscow airport for several hours last November for the only peace talks in more than two years of war. The meeting produced no concrete results and no one has since returned to the negotiating table.

Yastrzhembsky said the talks had not produced results as Zakayev did not have a mandate from Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov to discuss the issues put on the agenda by Moscow.

He said the two main demands were an end to military activity in the region and moves by the rebels to integrate into normal civilian life.

"The door remains open (for talks). If Zakayev was ready to return with a mandate by Maskhadov to continue his contacts with Kazantsev then the federal side would welcome that," he added.


But since the November peace talks, Moscow has launched a series of "special operations" in the province aimed at wiping out rebel groups. In January, the government announced that 92 rebels had been killed in a month-long crackdown -- one of the bloodiest reported there for more than a year.

Washington accused Moscow of using "overwhelming force" and committing human rights violations in Chechnya.

In return, Moscow protested to France, Britain and the United States over meetings held with Chechen rebel envoys, saying the countries were guilty of political double standards.

"We consider such meetings (with rebel envoys) as the continuation of the policy of political double standards," Yastrzhembsky said, adding that it gave the rebels "moral justification" for their actions.

"The very fact that they meet people who have not distanced themselves from their international terrorist links is condoning terrorism in a way... Despite their assurances they have nothing to do with (Arab) mercenaries and al Qaeda, it is not true."

Since September 11, Russia has repeatedly linked separatists in Chechnya to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, blamed by the United States for the airliner attacks.

Yastrzhembsky said the Russian government was taking steps to tackle reported human rights violations through military and civilian prosecutors, adding that the incidence of civilian deaths was not limited to Chechnya.

"Regretfully during military activity, no matter how sophisticated the weapons are, civilian casualties occur. It's a part of military activity wherever it happens -- Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Chechnya or Afghanistan," he said.

Russia, which is embroiled in its second post-Soviet campaign in Chechnya, now has shaky control over most of the territory on its southern flank. But its troops still die almost daily in guerrilla attacks.


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