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'Only Political Settlement Can End Chechen Conflict,'  Says French Foreign Minister - 2004-01-23

France's foreign minister startled his Russian hosts during a speech in Moscow on Friday in which he said the ongoing conflict in Chechnya can end only through political dialogue. The comments came near the end of his two-day visit to Russia.

The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, spent most of his time in Moscow discussing trade and security issues with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov.

The two men said relations between Russia and France are now excellent, having been strengthened in part by cooperation in opposing terrorism.

But after the formal meetings ended, the two men visited Moscow's prestigious University of International Relations. It was there that Mr. de Villepin told students the separatist Chechen region has been in a state of open war for too many years and that the conflict creates instability in a region stretching from Turkey to Iran.

The French foreign minister said Russia is right to condemn terrorism, and that its territorial integrity should be respected.

But he added that only a political settlement can end the conflict, which Chechen fighters have long said was a war for their independence from Russia.

At one point, Mr. Ivanov intervened to reiterate the Kremlin's longstanding position that the fight in Chechnya was not a war at all, but a struggle against international terrorism.

The Kremlin points out how foreign fighters from various other nations in the Middle East and even Europe have been killed or captured in Chechyna, and that many of them allegedly had links with the al Qaida terror network.

But Mr. de Villepin was, in effect, stating the European Union's longstanding policy on the issue, which is that the conflict cannot be seen only as a problem of terrorism.

The EU policy came under the spotlight late last year when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi strongly defended Russia's position during a summit meeting in Italy with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

EU officials quickly criticized the Italian leader for his comments, especially as he was serving temporarily as the head of the European Union at the time.

The conflict in Chechnya takes an almost daily toll, not just among Chechens but on Russian military personnel as well. On Friday, Russian officials said six servicemen had been killed and 13 wounded over the previous 24 hours in violence around the mountainous republic.

Mr. Putin rose to power in 1999, largely because of his tough line against the Chechen fighters, who had won de facto independence during the first Chechen war against Russia, in the mid-1990s.