Chechen Rebels Get 72-Hour Deadline

Two years to the week after the war in Chechnya started, President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly opened the door Monday to possible peace talks with Chechen rebels by giving them 72 hours to sever all contacts with international terrorists and approach his representatives in the region.

The offer was the first time Putin has showed a willingness to talk with the rebels, albeit only on the technicalities of their surrender. The remarks appeared to be mainly directed toward rebel President Aslan Maskhadov.

"I suggest members of all illegal armed formations and those who call themselves political actors immediately sever contacts with international terrorists and their organizations," Putin said in a late-night address to the nation on RTR. "In the next 72 hours [they should] approach official representatives of federal bodies to discuss the following questions: a method of disarming illegal formations and groups and a way to include them in civilian life in Chechnya."

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Putin did not say what would happen after the deadline expired.

He asked rebels to contact his representative in the Southern Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, a general who until recently fought in Chechnya.

The ongoing military campaign in Chechnya began in late September 1999 after the Kremlin blamed Chechens of masterminding the bombings of several apartments in Moscow and in other cities. Moscow has repeatedly called the campaign a fight against terrorism.

Putin said Monday that the Chechen conflict "cannot be viewed outside the context of international terrorism."

But he acknowledged that the conflict has its own, unique history.

"I'm ready to accept that there are still people in Chechnya who took up arms under the influence of false values," Putin said. "Today, when the civilized world has chosen its attitude toward terrorism, everybody should be given a chance to make his choice," he said. "This chance should be also given to those who have not laid down their weapons yet in Chechnya."

Until Monday, Putin had refused to talk with Chechen rebels. About two weeks ago, he scorned Boris Nemtsov, head of the Union of the Right Forces, for suggesting such talks were necessary.

Meanwhile, Maskhadov earlier Monday severed ties with the Council of Europe, accusing it of failing to investigate alleged war crimes by federal troops or bring the Kremlin to the negotiating table, according to a statement posted on the rebel kavkaz.org web site. It was unclear how close his contact with council members had been or what impact his decision would have.