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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Deadline Needs Grain of Salt

Russian officials on Tuesday began preparing for Chechen rebels to respond to an ultimatum by President Vladimir Putin, but experts were skeptical, saying the Kremlin's goal was not to begin peace talks but to justify a stepped-up military operation and to deflect Western criticism of human rights abuses.

"These 72 hours are given to [rebel leader Aslan] Maskhadov to understand the demand of the head of state and to fulfill it," General Gennady Troshev, head of the North Caucasus military district, told Interfax. "If he won't do it, we will do it for him, but in a different way."

Maskhadov welcomed Putin's offer and named an official to lead the talks.

"I believe the new proposal ... provides a new chance to start negotiations on the quickest possible cessation of military activities," he said in a statement.

Late Monday, Putin gave the rebels 72 hours to sever ties with international terrorist organizations and contact federal officials to discuss procedures for disarmament. The announcement came at the end of a speech in which Putin outlined the details of Russia's support for the U.S.-led operation against Afghanistan's Taliban movement and suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

General Viktor Kazantsev, the presidential envoy in the Southern Federal District whom Putin designated as the contact person for repentant rebels, met with regional leaders Tuesday in Yessentuki to coordinate the effort.

"This is a chance Putin has given to wayward people, maybe a last chance ... to end war and enter peaceful life," Kazantsev said in televised remarks.

Both military officials and experts agreed on the inevitability of an invigorated military operation in Chechnya.

Chechnya's acting prosecutor Vsevolod Chernov announced Tuesday that a new operational headquarters was being set up in Nalchik for the anticipated "active phase" of destroying the "gangs" in Chechnya.

However, there was no consensus on the link between Putin's offer of support to the United States and toned down Western criticism of the campaign in Chechnya, which has often drawn the ire of human rights groups.

"Russia imagines it's bargaining with America, offering its support in the future campaign in Afghanistan in exchange for carte blanche to intensify fighting in Chechnya," said Alexander Iskandaryan of the Center of Caucasian Studies in a telephone interview. "However, America is too powerful to be dependent on Russia's helping hand and may turn down the deal."

Indeed, several U.S. officials said Tuesday that Washington would not close its eyes to human rights abuses.

"On Chechnya, the principles of adherence to human rights is always important," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in remarks reported by The Associated Press.

Political analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, however, said Russia's newly acquired leverage should not be underestimated.

"Putin took on very serious obligations Monday," he said in an interview. "So I believe international public opinion will become more tolerant on Chechnya."

The same day, German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der, who was hosting Putin during a three-day state visit, hinted that the West would take a softer line toward Chechnya.

"As regards Chechnya there will be ... a more differentiated evaluation in world opinion," Reuters quoted him as saying at a press conference in Berlin. Schroeder did not elaborate.

Akhmed Zakayev, Maskhadov's representative and the deputy prime minister of the rebel government, said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location that he would be conducting talks with Kazantsev, although he did not elaborate on the Chechens' negotiating position.

Kazantsev said in televised remarks that he expected a rebel response as early as Tuesday evening, but experts were doubtful that either Putin's ultimatum or the probable fighting in Afghanistan would weaken the Chechen rebels.

"Even if all channels of financial help from foreign radical Islamic groups are cut off completely, it will only slightly decrease the intensity of the rebels' attacks," said Dmitry Makarov, an expert with the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies. "It is not foreign money that feeds the rebels' resistance but a set of political, social and criminal conflicts."

His opinion coincided to some extent with Zakayev's.

"We receive moral and material help from the governments of Moslem countries. ..."We don't have ties with Moslem organizations and any actions against them cannot influence our resistance."