The United States Tuesday reaffirmed its "absolute solidarity" with Russia in its fight against terrorism, but also reiterated its support for a political solution to the Chechnya conflict. The comments followed charges by Russian President Vladimir Putin that U.S. meetings with Chechen separatists undermine Russia's efforts against terror.
Officials here are defending past U.S. contacts with Chechen separatists in the face of sharp criticism by Mr. Putin following the terrorist attack last week that killed hundreds of children and others in North Ossetia.
The State Department acknowledges having working-level meetings with Chechen separatist politicians, though it says there have been none since 2002 and none with members of factions associated with acts of terror.
In a talk with reporters, Secretary of State Colin Powell said while the United States supports a political solution in Chechnya, it totally rejects and condemns acts of terrorism committed in the name of the Chechens such as the North Ossetia schoolhouse attack.
"All parties, to include the Russian Federation, have been looking for a political solution to the crisis in Chechnya," he said. "I think President Putin was making reference to occasional visits, not one recently but some time ago, of Chechen personalities to staff members of the State Department as part of our way of keeping informed about the situation in the region. Where we are now absolutely united though, is in condemning this horrible, horrible action that took place in this small town."
Mr. Powell, who along with his deputy Richard Armitage paid a condolence visit earlier in the day to the Russian embassy, said the entire civilized world condemns the North Ossetia attack, especially the murder of children.
He said the United States will work closely with Russian authorities "in any way we can" in the follow-up to the tragedy, and is looking forward to the official Russian investigation of the attack to see what it reveals about the perpetrators.
In response to a Russian request for help, the U.S. has delivered two planeloads of emergency medical supplies worth nearly $600,000 to North Ossetia with a third aircraft due there on Wednesday.
In comments to Western foreign policy experts in Moscow, Mr. Putin said the Bush administration had brushed off Russian complaints about contacts with Chechen figures.
He criticized what he said was a "Cold War mentality" on the part of some U.S. officials, and said calls on Moscow to talk to Chechen separatists were like asking the United States to talk to Osama bin Laden.
A senior diplomat here said the U.S.-Chechen contacts were at the working or desk-officer level, and that the last State Department visit by a Chechen separatist was in 2001. He said there have been no meetings since a similar encounter at an overseas international conference in 2002.