For the first time since Russia opened its current war against rebels in Chechnya, a government representative met Thursday with an envoy from the separatists to discuss ways to end the 2-year-old conflict.
The meeting came on the final day of a three-day ultimatum announced by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as part of a declaration of his nation's support for a U.S.-led war on terrorism.
In an address to the nation Monday night, Putin said Chechen rebels cannot be seen as separate from "international terrorism," and he gave them 72 hours to lay down their weapons and cut ties to their financial and military sponsors abroad.
In Chechnya, no more than a few dozen weapons were surrendered to local authorities. But Aslan Maskhadov, president of the republic's self-proclaimed separatist government, named aide Ahmed Zakayev as his envoy for talks with Russian officials. Zakayev met with a deputy to Viktor Kazantsev, Putin's representative in the region.
Neither the location nor the substance of the discussion was disclosed, and the name of Kazantsev's deputy was not provided. Russian officials have declared since the war began that they would not negotiate with Maskhadov.
"The process is continuing," Kazantsev said of the meeting. "The negotiations are ongoing."
Some observers, including independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, said the ultimatum created a public pretext for Putin if he chooses to escalate the conflict under the umbrella of the war on terrorism.
"In the past two years, Russian troops have committed massive war crimes and killed thousands of civilians," Felgenhauer wrote in Thursday's editions of the English-language Moscow Times. "Now they are apparently preparing to do much more, but this time with U.S. endorsement."
But some Chechen leaders, including the republic's pro-Moscow representative in Russia's lower house of parliament, described the ultimatum as a genuine effort by Putin to begin peace talks.
"The fighters must realize that they have been given a new chance to leave the battlefield alive--to walk out of the battle and not be carried away in a body bag," said Aslambek Aslakhanov, the parliament deputy. "Putin's statement has thus become a cornerstone of a legitimate framework that will help start negotiations at some level at least, and consequently end the war."
Zakayev, the Chechen representative at the talks, gave a similar interpretation in an interview posted on a pro-Chechen Web site, http://www.kavkaz.org. He noted that Putin, in his speech, acknowledged that some Chechens may have taken up arms for nationalist aims.
"It is not terrorism in any of its manifestations that is the root cause of the Chechen conflict, but solely the historically unsettled relations between Russia and Chechnya," Zakayev said in the interview. "The abyss of alienation between the two peoples can still be crossed; peaceful, good-neighborly relations between Russians and Chechens can become reality. It is in this context that we have interpreted the latest proposal of Russia's president--as a serious step toward beginning negotiations on a peace settlement. Further delay will only increase the number of senseless deaths."
After Russia's first war against the separatists ended inconclusively in 1996, Maskhadov was elected president of the breakaway government in January 1997. The elections, monitored by international observers, were deemed free and fair, but no government recognized Chechnya as an independent state except Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
Maskhadov failed to establish a stable government during the republic's three years of de facto independence. In September 1999, after waves of kidnappings by Chechen warlords and apartment house bombings elsewhere in Russia that killed about 300 people, Moscow launched another war against the rebels.
Russian officials have long denounced Maskhadov as a criminal who has no influence over rebel field commanders. However, no other Chechen rebel leader has a more credible claim to political authority.
Russian officials were circumspect about what might follow the expiration of the 72-hour deadline, whether they considered their terms met or not. Russian Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov said large-scale operations would be unnecessary.
"Over the past months, there have been no hostilities in Chechnya in the proper sense of the word--in fact, there have been no hostilities for already a year," Ivanov said from Brussels, where he met with North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials. "Aircraft do not fly, tanks and other vehicles do not drive around, there are no front-line battles, et cetera. Instead, there are only special operations. And they will continue to be held in an offensive, pinpoint manner, with regard to the changing situation."
Many observers have speculated that in return for Moscow's assistance during a possible military campaign against Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have agreed to tone down criticism of the Chechen war. Russian officials have long complained that Chechen rebels are financed by outside sponsors such as Osama bin Laden, described by President Bush as the prime suspect in the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.