Russian, Chechen Rebel Envoy Hold First Talks Since War Began

From Associated Press

A prominent representative of Chechnya's rebels met with an envoy of President Vladimir V. Putin on Sunday for the first face-to-face talks on ending hostilities since renewed war broke out in the separatist region two years ago.

Viktor Kazantsev, Putin's envoy for Chechnya, met behind closed doors at Moscow's Sheremetyevo international airport with Ahmed Zakayev, a representative of Chechnya's rebel president, Aslan Maskhadov. Zakayev flew in from Turkey.

Kazantsev said the two-hour meeting "went exclusively along the lines of the recent statement" by Putin, according to the Interfax news agency.

He was referring to a speech Putin made Sept. 24 outlining Russia's response to the terror attacks in the United States, in which he urged Chechen rebels to discuss disarming and abandoning their separatist fight.

"The parties aired their intention to seek a lasting peace in Chechnya," said Maxim Fedorenko, Kazantsev's advisor, according to Interfax.

The war has been locked in a bloody stalemate for more than a year: Russian forces have not fulfilled Putin's 1999 vow to crush the rebels, and while the insurgents kill Russian soldiers almost every day, they have not mounted large-scale attacks.

The Sept. 11 attacks and the worldwide response appear to have profoundly affected the war in Chechnya. Analysts say the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign means that the rebels can no longer expect aid Russia claims they receive from Islamic extremist groups abroad.

At the same time, Putin's support for the campaign has been accompanied by efforts to bring Russia closer to Western economic and security organizations whose members have accused Moscow of using excessive force in Chechnya.

Russia insists that it is fighting international terrorism in Chechnya. After Putin signaled close cooperation with the anti-terrorism campaign, the United States softened its criticism, endorsing Russia's allegations of ties between the rebels and Osama bin Laden.

At a summit with the Russian leader last week, President Bush said the United States is "encouraged by President Putin's commitment to a political dialogue in Chechnya."

Kazantsev and Zakayev had spoken by telephone several times since Putin's statement, but the two had not met in person. Kazantsev said the dialogue would continue, but did not say when.

Putin, who built his popularity largely by taking a tough stance on Chechnya, had repeatedly rejected Western calls for a negotiated settlement of the latest war there, which began in 1999. As prime minister that year, he vowed rebels would be "rubbed out."

But as the war dragged on, Russian officials warmed to the idea of talks, although insisting that they center on rebel disarmament.

Even Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov spoke favorably of the talks on Sunday, saying "dialogue is always better than war," according to Interfax.

However, he raised concerns that with negotiations, "the situation might again begin to rot and smell like Khasavyurt," the town in Russia where Russians and Chechens signed a peace agreement in 1996 after a 20-month war.

Russia pulled its forces out of Chechnya under that agreement, leaving it with de facto independence. Crime, including kidnappings, became widespread, and the Chechen government, plagued by factional disputes, exerted little control.

Russian forces returned in September 1999, following incursions by Chechen-based rebels into neighboring Dagestan and after apartment-house bombings in Russia that officials blamed on rebels.

Even if an agreement is reached, it is unclear how widely it would be respected. The rebels are loyal to various warlords, and Maskhadov is believed to have influence over only some of the insurgents.

Russia's forces now control most of Chechnya, but its soldiers are still dying and few top separatist leaders have been captured or killed.

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