The United States is imposing anti-terrorist financial sanctions against three Chechen rebel factions, all of which are said to have been involved in last October's takeover of a Moscow theater that led to more than 100 deaths. The Chechen groups are also expected to face international sanctions through the United Nations.
The decision, which freezes any assets the Chechen factions might have in the United States, will have little immediate effect on the groups which have no known U.S. financial links.
But the terrorist designation does have political significance and has been welcomed by Russian officials, who had pressed for such action.
The sanctions, which also make it illegal for U.S. citizens to contribute money to the groups, are being imposed under a White House executive order issued shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
The penalties are administered by the State and Treasury Departments and are less sweeping than those required under the State Department's more-well-known list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, which will not apply to the Chechen groups.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the decision followed an extensive inter-agency assessment of the three Chechen groups, all of which U.S. officials believe have links to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida terror organization.
However he said the United States does not consider all Chechen fighters to be terrorists, and continues to support a negotiated solution in Chechnya, where Russian forces and separatist guerrillas have been in conflict for most of the past decade:
"In making this designation, the United States calls on all Chechen leaders to renounce terrorist acts and to cut any ties they may have to these terrorist groups and all who are affiliated with them," Richard Boucher said. "It remains our position that the broader conflict in Chechnya cannot be resolved militarily and requires a political solution."
Spokesman Boucher also said the United States urges Russia to establish "meaningful accountability" for human rights violations by its forces in Chechnya, and underscores its strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, which adjoins the strife-torn Russian republic.
The Chechen groups facing U.S. sanctions were identified as the "Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs," the "Special Purpose Islamic Regiment," and the "Islamic International Brigade," though the U.S. announcement said each faction has a variety of aliases.
Russia had been urging the United States to add Chechens to its terrorism lists, though senior officials here told reporters the administration's designation of the three groups fell short of Moscow's "wish list" which was understood to have included 15 groups.
Nonetheless, the action was welcomed by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in remarks to reporters in Beijing, and Russia is joining the United States in petitioning a United Nations committee to add the three groups to its list of al-Qaida-related terror organizations.
The request, which U.S. officials expect will be approved next week, would obligate all U.N. member states to also freeze assets of the three Chechen groups.
Officials here deny suggestions that the decision to list the Chechen groups is connected to diplomacy on Iraq at the United Nations, where U.S. officials are seeking Russia's vote, or at least its abstention, on a resolution that would authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein.