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Russians Begin 'Serious Dialogue' with Chechens

Russian officials say they have begun a "serious dialogue" with Chechen officials aimed at ending the long and bloody conflict in Chechnya.

Chechen representative Akhmed Zakayev met for about two hours with Viktor Kazantsev, a top Kremlin official dealing with southern Russia.

No further details of the talks emerged. Mr. Kazantsev was quoted as saying there are plans to hold another meeting in the near future.

The meeting marks the first serious bid to end more than two years of fighting that has killed more than 15,000 people in the breakaway republic. Despite deep distrust on both sides, the two parties have expressed a willingness recently to seek a solution to the long-running conflict.

Human-rights groups have long said Russian troops kill and abuse civilians in Chechnya, while the Kremlin calls Chechen rebel fighters "terrorists."

Mr. Zakayev is Deputy Prime Minister in the government of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Before flying to Moscow, the Chechen representative said Mr. Maskhadov had authorized his mission despite doubts Russia would be willing to make meaningful concessions.

Previously Mr. Kazantsev has said the only issue to discuss was that the Chechens disarm and surrender - a proposal they quickly rejected.

The Chechen representative arrived in Moscow from Turkey, where he met with various Turkish officials who have been sympathetic to the Chechen fight for independence.

The Chechens insist that the war is about their demand for independence from Russia. But the Kremlin accuses the Chechens of having links with international terrorists, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Some prominent Chechen field commanders may have such links, although observers say President Maskhadov has no control over many of the rebel groups fighting against the Russians.

Russian troops occupy most of Chechnya, but they have been unable to prevent daily attacks and ambushes against their forces.