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Maskhadov Calls Upcoming Chechen Elections 'Illegitimate'

Chechen-separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov has dismissed upcoming presidential elections in the southern Russian republic as illegitimate, and vowed to continue to fight Russian federal forces. Violence has flared in the days before Sunday's Kremlin-sponsored election, and concerns by human rights groups and western election monitors continue to mount.

Chechnya's incumbent separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, says armed resistance in Chechnya will not end "until the occupiers leave."

In an interview published in Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, Mr. Maskhadov said his main constitutional duty is to defend the sovereignty of Chechnya, where separatists have spent the better part of the last nine years trying to break away from Russian federal rule.

Russia launched its second military campaign in Chechnya in 1999, after a series of deadly apartment house bombings blamed on Chechen separatists. The first campaign, waged from 1994 to 1996, ended in a tenuous cease-fire and de facto independence for Chechnya.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has hailed the coming election as the first step toward peace in Chechnya. It follows a referendum earlier this year, when a new constitution was approved, cementing Chechnya's status as an internal Russian republic.

Human rights organizations have harshly condemned the Kremlin's plan to go forward with the election, as long as the war continues. Criticism has intensified in recent weeks as all the major challengers, who had a realistic chance of beating the Kremlin's favored candidate, either dropped out of or were disqualified from the race.

As a result, the head of the Moscow-backed administration in Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, is expected to win the election, despite reports he is widely unpopular.

The election is also seen as a centerpiece of Moscow's efforts to show that the war is over and that life in Chechnya is returning to normal. Reports from the area indicate otherwise.

Russian news agencies say a top Chechen official and his son were shot and killed when unidentified gunmen ambushed their car south of the Chechen capital, Grozny. Earlier this week, in eastern Chechnya, at least 1,500 Russian federal forces were reported bogged down in a three-day firefight with Chechen separatist fighters.

Two major western human rights groups have decided not to send observers to oversee the elections, saying conditions are too dangerous.

The 55-nation Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe pulled its staff out of Chechnya nearly a year ago, and has refused to allow it to return with anything but a limited humanitarian mandate. The Council of Europe has also decided against sending its observers to Chechnya.

Meanwhile, Russia's most respected rights group, Memorial, says Russian authorities are making good on their pledge to close Chechen refugee camps ahead of the presidential vote, leaving the refugees little choice but to return home.

In a statement Wednesday, Memorial said Russian authorities cut off gas at a camp housing about 1,000 Chechen refugees in neighboring Ingushetia, after cutting off water and electricity last week.

The Chechen refugee population in Ingushetia is estimated at about 10,000, and relief agencies fear a forced return will only add to unrest in the region.