Chechens are preparing to vote in a Kremlin-sponsored constitutional referendum, which Russian President Vladimir Putin says could bring an end to years of bloodshed.

Voters in Chechnya will be asked to answer three questions: Do you accept the Chechen constitution? Do you accept the law on Chechnya's president? And do you accept the law on Chechnya's parliament?

Rebel Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has condemned the referendum. He says it will only perpetuate war and his separatist followers have threatened to carry out attacks to protest the vote.

Mr. Maskhadov favors talks to end nearly a decade of confrontation. But Moscow refuses to talk to him, accusing him of planning the October siege at a Moscow theatre. More than 100 people died from the effects of a knock out gas used by Russian special forces as they stormed the theatre to free the hostages.

Several international groups have said they will not send observers to monitor Sunday's voting, citing security concerns. Others are questioning the legitimacy of the poll because tens of thousands of refugees have been forced to leave Chechnya and are unable to vote.

In a televised address last week, President Putin, urged the Chechen people to rise above their fears and vote for what he called a better, more peaceful future. Mr. Putin also held out the promise of "wide autonomy" for Chechnya within the Russian Federation.

But separatist leaders reject the Russian President's offer. They say they are only interested in full independence for Chechnya.

Chechnya has operated under de facto independence since Russian forces abandoned their first Chechen campaign in 1996. The Russians returned in 1999 after a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen separatist rebels.

The Kremlin says the elections are a first step toward bringing peace to the breakaway republic. Critics of the referendum say it should not be held as long as violence and intimidation continue in Chechnya.