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Chechen rebel leader: War may spread in Russia
Updated: 2004-07-18 16:56

Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov said at the weekend his fighters had the right to carry their war with Moscow into Russian territory and that the conflict was likely to spread.

The rebel leader, who rarely gives interviews, had previously expressed hope that Western countries would persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to open peace talks to end a war that has raged with only a two-year respite since 1994.

But in an e-mail exchange with Reuters arranged through representatives in London, Maskhadov sounded more pessimistic, placing little store by negotiations and predicting the war would outlast Putin.

"Negotiations for Chechens are not an end in themselves. We look at them as one of the paths to ending the fighting. As sad as it sounds, I think the current Russian-Chechen war will outlive Putin," Maskhadov wrote.

He dismissed a Russian plan to hold an election for a new Chechen leader on August 29 as a "farce" that would only make a peaceful solution more difficult to achieve. The previous Russian-backed leader was assassinated in May.

"Any political figure named by the occupiers ... will be branded a quisling. Quislings have one fate, which no normal person would choose," Maskhadov said.

Maskhadov, a former Soviet artillery colonel, led Chechen rebel military forces during the first phase of the war in 1994-96, before negotiating a peace deal under which Moscow withdrew its troops from the region.

He was elected president of a de facto independent Chechnya in 1997 with the Kremlin's blessing. But when Moscow sent forces back into Chechnya two years later, it declared him an enemy.


Maskhadov denied being behind a large-scale attack last month in the Russian region of Ingushetia on Chechnya's western border. He said the violence, in which guerrillas killed nearly 100 people, was led by local nationalists though "some Chechens" took part.

But he said he would not be surprised if there were similar operations in other parts of Russia. Attacks in Russian territory, which he has criticized in the past, were an acceptable tactic, he said.

"As for Chechens carrying fighting into Russian territory, my opinion is: this would be absolutely legitimate -- in any case, no less legitimate than the allies in World War II carrying fighting into the territory of Hitler's Germany.

"If Chechens possessed warplanes or rockets, then air strikes on Russian cities would also be legitimate," he wrote.

Apart from a single meeting with a Maskhadov envoy at a Moscow airport in 2001, Russia has refused to hold any talks with the rebels.

Russia has portrayed its fight with Chechen rebels as part of a global war on terror. This has helped mute criticism from Washington and European capitals, although they still urge Moscow to talk to Maskhadov who is seen as a relative moderate.

Maskhadov said Western leaders had become "hostages to their own fear," accepting too quickly Russia's arguments that Chechens were linked to terrorism.

"I have said and continue to say: the Chechen people are waging a war against international terrorism, headed by the Russian leadership," he said.

"All independent media, all humanitarian organizations know and declare that what is happening in Chechnya is the deliberate murder of a civilian population on ethnic grounds. Yet leaders of the top Western countries are unconscionably repeating the Kremlin's lie about thousands of Chechens in Afghanistan or Iraq, supposedly fiercely opposing coalition forces.

"I don't know, maybe some of these al Qaeda people came to Chechnya, although I can't imagine what they were looking for here. We are fighting for our freedom and have no aim of global domination. The United States is not our enemy or competitor."

Maskhadov said he moved around between undisclosed locations inside Chechnya and was in complete control of his commanders.

But he said commander Shamil Basayev, Moscow's most wanted man who is known for a number of sensational and bloody raids, was now operating outside "our official structures."

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