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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Envoy Says Maskhadov Wants to Talk

Itar-TassMaskhadov's aide Akhmed Zakayev
The presidential envoy for the Caucasus region said Wednesday he had been approached by a senior Chechen rebel figure with a request to begin talks with Russian officials.

However, a Kremlin spokesman downplayed the offer, saying it does not amount to "the start of a new dialogue between Moscow and Grozny."

Viktor Kazantsev, President Vladimir Putin's envoy in the Southern Federal District, said on television that an aide of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov wants to discuss the Kremlin's latest initiatives to end the conflict in the separatist region.

"Akhmed Zakayev called me to say that after long deliberations he was asking for a meeting here in Moscow to discuss proposals made in the statement of President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 24," Kazantsev said.

Saying that Putin's statement had focused on the disarming of illegal armed groups and "the procedure of integrating them into normal life," Kazantsev added: "I think this meeting will take place in the next 10 days."

In an interview with NTV television, Zakayev confirmed that, "if nothing ... happens," he and Kazantsev would meet in the coming 10 days.

Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky and the Moscow-appointed head of Chechnya's administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, both reiterated the Kremlin's position that the only topic of discussion would be procedures for the rebels' disarmament.

Kadyrov said Maskhadov and his allies were hoping to create "an illusion of negotiating as equals" when, in fact, the only topic of discussions would be when, where and how they would hand over their weapons, Interfax reported.

But Zakayev disagreed.

"Disarmament cannot be a pre-condition for beginning talks," he said. "Unquestionably, it is a topic for negotiations among many others ... [including] the return of refugees, ending military action and economic issues."

Putin, in a major policy speech Sept. 24, ruled out any compromise with the Chechen rebels and gave them 72 hours to start discussing disarmament. Maskhadov welcomed the invitation to talk and appointed Zakayev as his liaison, but the deadline came and went without any significant response from the rebels or punitive action from federal forces.

It was not clear whether the rebels' latest move toward rapprochement would prove more fruitful.

Some analysts said that even assuming Maskhadov was ready for peace talks with federal officials, it was not clear whether this would make any difference on the battlefield, since the bulk of Chechen fighters take their orders not from Maskhadov but from warlords like Shamil Basayev and Khattab.

Nonetheless, Putin's efforts to equate Russia's crackdown in Chechnya with the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan appears to be paying off with Western governments giving him a noticeably easier ride on the issue.

The most recent signal of the softer line came Monday when visiting French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said in Moscow that terrorism had to be fought where it was found "including if it shows itself ... in Chechnya." Analysts said that with Putin enjoying high visibility on the world stage by his support for the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, this could be a good time for him to try to drive a wedge in the ranks of the Chechen resistance.

In continued violence in the region, a senior military officer was killed by a bomb in Shali district southeast of Grozny, Ekho Moskvy said Wednesday. Itar-Tass also quoted military officials as saying their forces had wiped out a large number of rebels in special forces operations in the past 24 hours.

(Reuters, MT)