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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Rebels Offer Peace Talks

APFerzaouli, left, and Zakayev attending the Chechen meeting Monday in Copenhagen.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev on Monday expressed willingness to start unconditional peace talks with the Russian government over ending the war in Chechnya as a conference opened that has sparked a diplomatic spat between Russia and Denmark.

"We urge and we are asking [President Vladimir] Putin, and we declare our readiness, to talk peace talks without any preliminary terms," said Zakayev, a representative of separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov.

Russia has sharply criticized Denmark for allowing the two-day World Chechen Congress after the hostage crisis in Moscow.

The Danish government announced late Sunday that a Nov. 11 European Union-Russia summit would be held in Brussels, Belgium, instead of Copenhagen and Nov. 12 bilateral meetings would be canceled after Putin threatened not to attend because of the Chechen Congress.

Denmark, which holds the EU's rotating presidency through December, refused to ban the meetings, citing its constitutional right of freedom of speech and assembly.

Moscow has insisted on a military solution for Chechnya and refused to negotiate with the rebels, who they say have links to international terrorism.

Denmark's stance "places under question the sincerity of its participation in the international anti-terrorist coalition, not to mention the future of Russian-Danish relations," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Chechen separatists at the congress distanced themselves from the hostage crisis.

"We have no relations with terrorists," said Osman Ferzaouli, a Copenhagen-based Maskhadov representative.

Flemming Larsen, chairman of a Danish support committee for Chechnya, which is hosting the congress, dismissed claims by Moscow the congress aimed to raise funds for rebels in Chechnya as "quite ridiculous.

"Most of the people who are here are actually living and working in Russia," he said. "They are here on fully legal papers."

About 100 Chechens, Russian human rights activists and lawmakers from Russia and other European countries gathered at a downtown Copenhagen hotel to discuss ways to end the fighting.

Zakayev said the Russians and the Chechens could not do it alone. "We declare that we need international monitoring groups' assistance of the international societies. For example, the United States of America and European society," he said through an interpreter.

Delegates, including former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, who is an ethnic Chechen, and former Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, called for dialogue with Moscow that eventually could lead to independence for Chechnya.

Holger Nielsen, leader of Denmark's opposition Socialist People's Party and a congress delegate, criticized the decision to move the EU-Russia summit to Brussels. "I think it was the wrong decision. It can only be interpreted as accepting the pressure from Russia and I don't think that you should accept this pressure because it is a repression of fundamental democratic rights," he said.

British actress Vanessa Redgrave was scheduled to present a movie about Chechnya at the congress Tuesday.

The congress had been planned to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, earlier this year but was moved to Denmark under pressure from Moscow.

(AP, Reuters)