A group of prominent political religious and business figures, led by former Czech President Vaclav Havel, has criticized Russia's handling of a separatist rebellion in Chechnya.

A letter by the group Wednesday accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of using the war in Chechnya to take away people's freedoms and re-establish an autocracy.

In addition to Havel, the authors of the letter include former Irish President Mary Robinson, retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and billionaire George Soros.

The letter appeared in a Prague newspaper, the Mlada Fronta Dnes, Wednesday as the Russian leader was due to begin a visit to the Czech capital.

Russian troops battled separatist rebels in Chechnya for several years in the 1990s, but the fighting has subsided in recent years with pro-Russian forces controlling much of the republic.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.