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Putin to Hold Referendum in Chechnya - 2003-01-25

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he will press ahead with plans for a referendum in war-torn Chechnya, despite calls from a senior European official for a delay. The referendum is seen as the Kremlin's way of demonstrating the long-running war in the separatist region is now over.

President Putin met with election officials to say that organizing for the March 23 constitutional referendum must move ahead as planned. He said every effort should be made to educate people in the separatist region about the reasons for voting.

This was a reference to criticism just hours earlier from a top European human rights official, who said conditions are not right for such a referendum.

After a three-day trip to Chechnya, Frank Judd told reporters people had no understanding of what they would be voting for, and he urged the Kremlin to reconsider.

Mr. Judd is a senior official with the Council of Europe, the continent's chief human rights watchdog organization, and has visited Chechnya many times.

He said the vote was unlikely to produce a real political solution in Chechnya, where separatist rebels have been battling Russian troops for most of the past eight years.

Mr. Putin brushed aside this criticism, insisting that the vote would, "give people a chance to take power into their own hands."

Critics say the referendum is an attempt by the Kremlin to demonstrate that Russia has defeated the rebels. Mr. Putin has refused to hold talks with separatist leaders, insisting they are terrorists who receive support from international extremists.

This view only hardened after last October's raid on a Moscow theater, when Chechen rebels held around 800 people hostage, before Russian troops stormed the building.

Close to 130 of the hostages died, almost all due to the effects of a knockout gas used to immobilize the rebels.

Moderate Chechen leaders deny any link to the hostage incident.