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Russian President Putin Helps Inaugurate New Chechen Parliament

Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to the breakaway region of Chechnya Monday to help inaugurate the newly elected parliament. He praised the new legislators for seeking peace in the war-torn region.

President Putin made the surprise visit under tight security, arriving by helicopter shortly before the new parliament was to convene.

In a speech, he praised the newly elected lawmakers for "choosing the road to peace" and blamed foreign radicals for destabilizing Chechnya.

He also played up Russia's credentials with the Muslim world, saying it is the separatist fighters who are on the wrong side.

He told the new parliament that the people who are trying to defend those wrong ideals simply do not know that Russia has always been a most faithful and reliable defender of the interests of Islamic world.

Mr. Putin has long said that Chechen separatist fighters receive funding and weapons from Islamic groups based abroad, and that the conflict in the devastated southern republic is another front in the war on terror.

There have been foreign fighters killed in Chechnya, including several prominent commanders who belong to the radical Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia. But critics say the vast majority of fighters are Chechens who want the region to become independent.

Russian troops have been battling the insurgency for most of the past decade, and Mr. Putin rose to power as prime minister in 1999 largely due to his tough policy on Chechnya.

While major combat is over, small groups of fighters mount frequent attacks against Russian solders and Chechen security forces and the fighting takes an almost daily death toll on all sides, especially civilians.

The vote for a new parliament on November 27 was the latest step in a Kremlin-backed political process in the region.

As expected, delegates with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party won an overwhelming majority in the new legislature. The separatists denounced the election as "a farce" and promised to continue fighting.

The Russian president has visited Chechnya before, each time on quick trips that were only announced after he had left.