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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

As 72-Hour Offer Expires, Rebels Show Interest in Talks

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Southern Russia -- Rebel envoys contacted federal authorities about possible talks on disarmament in the first serious move toward negotiations in the two-year-old war, officials said Thursday.

The overture came just as President Vladimir Putin's 72-hour offer for talks -- his first such proposal -- was expiring. Putin in the past repeatedly had rejected Western calls for negotiations, insisting the rebels must be eliminated.

Click here to read our special report on the Conflict in Chechnya.Viktor Kazantsev, the presidential envoy in the Southern Federal District, whom Putin appointed to oversee negotiations, said he had spoken with representatives of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov but gave no details of the meeting.

"We have just barely started," Kazantsev said on RTR television Thursday night from a plane to Moscow. "I'm not saying they're ready, they are still doubtful." He said there would be further discussions with Maskhadov envoys but would not say when.

Kazantsev met with pro-Moscow Chechen officials in Grozny on Wednesday and spent much of Thursday in the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz.

Maskhadov, who played a key role in fighting the Russians in the 1994-96 war and in negotiating a peace deal, welcomed the Kremlin peace offer and named Akhmed Zakayev to negotiate with Kazantsev.

Kazantsev's deputy Nikolai Britvin said in a telephone interview from Grozny that an unspecified, small number of rebels had already surrendered. He said the federal authorities would continue to welcome rebels willing to disarm after the 72-hour offer expires.

"The process has started and it will continue tomorrow and for some time in the future," Britvin said.

Shamil Burayev, the head of Achkhoi-Martan administration, said Thursday that no rebels had surrendered yet, but their relatives were asking the authorities about conditions for disarmament.

"Many rebels were waiting for such an offer, but they need more than 72 hours to come down from the mountains," he said in a telephone interview.

Bislan Gantamitrov, a pro-Moscow Chechen official, said on NTV television Thursday that civilians in Chechnya had handed over two grenade launchers, four pistols and one rifle. He said that there have been some contacts between federal authorities and rebel representatives, but refused to give any details.

U.S. officials welcomed Putin's peace offer, and President George W. Bush on Wednesday endorsed Putin's assertion that rebels in Chechnya are affiliated with bin Laden's organization al-Qaida.