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Chechen Diplomat Visits Washington, Angers Russia - 2002-02-01

The top diplomat for Chechen separatists is in Washington for talks with U.S. officials about the situation in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya. Ilyas Akhmadov is concerned that Russia's cooperation in the U.S. fight against terrorism is making Washington blind to alleged human rights abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya. Mr. Akhmadov's U.S. visit has angered Moscow.

Russia claims its military crackdown in Chechnya is part of the international war on terrorism, comparing it to the U.S. campaign against terrorist targets in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Moscow says Chechen rebels have ties to what it calls 'international terrorists,' including Osama bin Laden.

It is a claim Ilyas Akhmadov denies, although he does not rule out that there may be some extremist elements among the rebels.

Mr. Akhmadov fears the United States and other western nations are ignoring what he says is a growing pattern of human rights abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya now that Moscow is cooperating in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

In an appearance at Freedom House, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote democracy, Mr. Akhmadov spoke through a translator: "Our main goal now is to express the concern of the Chechen leadership as well as the Chechen people because it appears that the whole issue of Chechnya has been swept under the rug," he said.

Mr. Akhmadov's concerns were echoed by Elizabeth Anderson of Human Rights Watch, who attended the Freedom House event. "We see a continued and increasing trend of atrocities, disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial executions. Our concern is that in the aftermath of September 11, the Russian government feels that it can continue its campaign in Chechnya with virtual impunity," she said. "There have been a number of worrying statements from Western leaders, Western Europe in particular, suggesting there needs to be an re-evaluation of the war on Chechnya and maybe a backing of Russia, and that is a mistake." But Ms. Anderson said Chechen rebels are also guilty of human rights abuses. She said her organization has also found evidence that Chechen fighters have been responsible for assassinations of dozens of civilian administrators in recent years.

Mr. Akhmadov did not dispute the findings. "Without a doubt this is a very serious problem, but we have very limited and few means by which we can prevent this," he said. "We have virtually no municipal system that we work with. You understand this is a guerrilla war, and the only form of punishment in a guerrilla war in a case like this is execution. We do not have the means by which to actually follow through, go through a court hearing and prosecute people by normal means. The only thing we can do is conduct investigations into these situations."

But despite reports of human rights abuses on both sides of the conflict, Mr. Akhmadov said he still believes a peaceful resolution is possible.

He met with a State Department official last week and with U.S. lawmakers of both parties this week to ask for Washington's help in convincing Moscow to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. "I spoke with the State Department and members of Congress requesting them to at least try to provide some sort of pressure or influence, constructive influence, on the Russians to at least try to get them to peace talks so this can be resolved in a peaceful manner," he said through a translator.

Mr. Akhmadov said he is encouraged by the reception he received from officials here in Washington, especially among lawmakers.

Following his meeting with Mr. Akhmadov, Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, an influential member of the Foreign Relations Committee, issued a strongly-worded statement. It said 'thanks to the broken promises of (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, Russia continues to brutalize the Chechen people, including innocent civilians.'

Senator Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, who also met with Mr. Akhmadov, is expected to introduce a resolution next week that also expresses concern about the Russian crackdown in Chechnya.

Mr. Akhmadov's U.S. visit has infuriated Moscow, which called the State Department's contact with the Chechen separatist 'an unfriendly step'.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher defended the meeting, noting it took place at a local university, not on State Department premises. He said the meeting was "within the framework of attempts by the U.S. to help establish peace in Chechnya."

After a low-level meeting between Chechens and Russian in November, the peace process broke down, largely because of Moscow's demand that the rebels surrender and disarm before negotiations begin.

Moscow has been engaged in Chechnya since 1999 in its second post-Soviet military campaign there, after two years of fighting ended in 1996 with an embarrassing withdrawal.