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Moscow Conference Calls for Peace Talks with Chechnya - 2002-11-09

Russian human rights activists are calling on the Kremlin to begin peace talks to end the conflict in Chechnya. They made the call at a Moscow conference, which was condemned by the government in the wake of the recent hostage incident at a Moscow theater.

Conference delegates urged the Russian government to open talks with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov and representatives from the international community.

Prominent human rights activist and Parliament deputy Sergei Kovalyov said only negotiations can end the war in the breakaway republic.

About 200 people are taking part in the conference at a Moscow hotel, which has been placed under tight security.

The Kremlin has already rejected calls for peace talks with Mr. Maskhadov, who the authorities say was responsible for the attack in which Chechen militants held around 800 people hostage last month. At least 128 hostages died when Russian troops stormed the theater to end the three-day siege.

Last week, the Kremlin sharply criticized the planned conference, and asked that it be canceled.

On Saturday, another prominent member of Parliament said the timing of the conference is inappropriate. Grigory Yavlinsky says the problem of Chechnya needs to be discussed, but at a later date because emotions are still running high following the hostage crisis.

Meanwhile, violence in Chechnya continues. Officials say four Russian soldiers were killed, as rebels staged a number of attacks. The bodies of five men were found lying bound and gagged in one village.

In another town, Russian media reports say, masked men blew up the house of one of the women who took part in the theater raid. The woman's relatives were given just minutes to leave the house before it was destroyed.