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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Hints at Talks to End War

A top Kremlin official announced Thursday that Moscow was ready for negotiations with Chechnya to end nearly seven weeks of war, provided Chechnya would renounce its claim to independence.

Kremlin First Deputy Chief of Staff Igor Shabdurasulov also offered a formal apology - the first from any high-ranking Russian official - for the civilian casualties of the war.

At the same time, he vowed the war would go on for now, and on Thursday Russian forces hammered Grozny with artillery and air strikes.

Shabdurasulov's announcement was echoed by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Helsinki, who said Russia was "prepared to end military action even tomorrow," provided only that Chechen fighters surrender.

"We are interested in quickly ending the anti-terrorist operations and starting the process for a political settlement," Ivanov said, in remarks reported by Reuters. "If they [the rebels] laid down arms and halted their actions, things could end quickly."

As Ivanov and Shabdurasulov raised their voices, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - the war's main architect - was silent. Putin was in the city of Izhvesk Thursday to celebrate the 80th birthday of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the famous AK-47 assault rifle.

He made no official pronouncements about Chechnya, and was only quoted as saying Russia would in future take "consecutive and persistent" steps toward improving its national defense readiness.

Other ministers also spoke out.

Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said he expected the war might end before the year's end, though he did not say exactly how.

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said he opposed talks and wanted military operations to continue until the "terrorists" were "eliminated."

Putin's popularity has soared since the conflict in Chechnya and polls show him to be Russia's most popular politician.

But international condemnation of the war has grown, and the Kremlin has at times seemed to be distancing itself from Putin.

Boris Yeltsin was formally on vacation on Thursday at a residence outside Moscow.

Cracks have also appeared in the domestic political consensus on the war. On Tuesday, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky became the first major politician to question the war. Citing mounting civilian casualties and a refugee crisis, he called for a 30-day bombing pause to let innocents escape the war zone.

Exactly how many civilians have been killed remains unclear. But Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov told The Associated Press this week that Russian airstrikes have killed 4,126 civilians, and human rights groups have expressed alarm about civilian deaths.

In sharp contrast to previous government statements, Shabdurasulov on Thursday acknowledged that Russian forces have made "mistakes" resulting in civilian casualties.

"We bear moral responsibility for these mistakes," he said.

Shabdurasulov held his press conference jointly with Dzhabrail Gakayev, a leader of the Moscow-based Chechen community.

When Gakayev offered evidence that Russian forces had bombed schools and killed civilians, including women and elderly, Shabdurasulov did not disagree.

"We have information that on Oct. 29, 29 civilians heading away from Chechnya were killed," Gakayev said.

Shabdurasulov also apologized to the families of Russian soldiers, and expressed "empathy and compassion" for civilians in Chechnya.

The plight of civilians in Chechnya and that of refugees fleeing the war is likely to be a major topic at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's summit meeting next month in Istanbul, Turkey.

"We've seen alarming humanitarian conditions," Reuters quoted Norwegian diplomat Kim Traavik as saying Thursday. "There is a need for a major effort to avoid a further worsening of the situation."

Traavik was speaking after leading an OSCE mission to Ingushetia, which is sheltering nearly 200,000 Chechen refugees.

He said winter cold, cramped conditions and rising cases of tuberculosis and dysentery were all a threat to the estimated 25,000 refugees in camps there.

Shabdurasulov said the Kremlin seeks talks not only with Maskhadov, but with all "respectable" members of the Chechen elite - but certainly not with rebel warlords Shamil Basayev or Khattab, who he described as "terrorists."

Maskhadov on Thursday appealed to Yeltsin for negotiations.

"Boris Nikolayevich, I again urge you to start a dialogue," Maskhadov said in an open letter to Yeltsin. "The problems ... can't be solved by war."

But Shabdurasulov said, "There is no practical sense today in holding negotiations with Maskhadov alone because he does not control the situation in Chechnya."

He added, however, that Russia still views Maskhadov as the "legitimate president of the Chechen republic."

By contrast, Interior Minister Rushailo was quoted by Interfax Thursday as saying, "Maskhadov is now on a level with the bandits," and opposing talks with him.

"We are talking about the consolidation of the Chechen people so that they are themselves able to define paths toward the unification of Chechen society and begin looking for a solution to the Chechen problem as a whole," Shabdurasulov said.

"The federal authorities have always adhered to the position that this problem cannot be resolved by means of the use of force alone," Shabdurasulov said.

"Chechnya is an integral part of the Russian Federation and of the Russian people. This position is not subject to discussion, not today, not in 2001, 2002 nor in any other year."

That position was at odds with a May 1997 agreement signed by President Yeltsin and Aslan Maskhadov, who had just been elected as president of Chechnya.

That agreement - based on the 1996 Khasavyurt Accords brokered by Maskhadov and then-Kremlin security chief Alexander Lebed to end the first war - put off deciding the issue Chechnya's independence until 2001.

Yavlinsky has also proposed talks with Mashkadov - provided Maskhadov first frees all kidnapping victims and other hostages held across Chechnya, disarms all paramilitary groups and turns over all "terrorists."

Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov slammed Yavlinsky's proposal Wednesday, calling it "pure fiction, totally groundless and leading nowhere."

Likewise, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, owned by Kremlin-connected tycoon Boris Berezovsky, ran a front-page story Wednesday condemning Yavlinsky's 30-day bombing pause proposal as a piece of cheap electioneering and an attempt to undermine Putin's presidential aspirations.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta suggested that Yavlinsky has a hidden agenda and made the proposal to "demonstrate his loyalty to Yabloko's foreign partners."