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Putin Hints at Conditional Talks with Chechen Rebels - 2001-09-08


Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday he would agree to peace talks with Chechen separatists under strict conditions. It is the first time in almost two years of fighting that he has considered negotiations with the rebels.

President Vladimir Putin says he could agree to peace talks with the Islamic rebels Russia has been fighting for almost two years in Chechnya. Speaking in southern Russia, near the Chechen border, President Putin was responding to a call for peace negotiations from a Russian parliamentarian.

"I must say I believe that talks are always better than any kind of military action. Always," said President Putin. "We are ready to make contacts with anybody."

But President Putin has set two strict preconditions for any talks. First, Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov must accept Russian sovereignty, and second he must surrender all weapons and certain rebel leaders responsible for killing Russian troops.

"The most odious bandits should surrender to federal troops," said President Putin, "their arms are soaked in blood up to their elbows, and it's the blood of Russians."

These preconditions are almost certain to be rejected by the separatists. Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has previously offered to negotiate, but he does not control all the rebels, who fight in autonomous bands.

Ten years ago Friday, Chechnya declared its independence, but Moscow still considers it a Russian republic. Moscow lost a war with the separatists in the mid-1990s and withdrew its forces from the breakaway republic. Two years ago, Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, sent the troops back in, after a series of terrorist bombings that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen separatists.

Russian forces were initially successful, bolstering Vladimir Putin's popularity before Russia's presidential election.

However, 18 months after Moscow declared victory in Chechnya, it remains mired in a brutal guerrilla war, which has claimed thousands of lives on both sides.

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