Chechen's dinner with Thatcher stirs Russian ire

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NEWS that Baroness Thatcher will host a London dinner next week for the president of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, was yesterday greeted with cynicism in political circles in Moscow. Russia has yet to recognise the small republic's independence despite losing a 21-month war of secession.

One member of parliament suggested that the former prime minister was using Mr Maskhadov as a "toy" to "remind people of her existence". Another remarked: "I feel sorry for Mr Maskhadov. She was midwife for Mr Gorbachev's politics, and look what happened to him."

The trip has already spawned a minor diplomatic panic in Russia where Chechnya remains an extraordinarily sensitive issue. Officials still smart over the election to prime minister of Shamil Basayev, whose career has included robbing banks and hijacking an aircraft. He is still seen here as a terrorist.

Anxious not to upset the Kremlin, the British Embassy passed details of Mr Maskhadov's visit to the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Security Council, along with copious assurances that Mr Maskhadov will not be treated as the head of an independent country, but merely as a regional leader.

But yesterday one of Mr Maskhadov's aides upset the applecart by claiming the President had been issued an entry visa to Britain against a Chechen passport, prompting hasty denials from the Foreign Office, which does not recognise Chechnya's independence.

The volatility of the issue was evident from comments by the Russian Foreign Ministry which told the Itar-Tass news agency that "the reception of Mr Maskhadov on an official level is out of the question". In fact, the former Chechen commander, a guest of Lord McAlpine, the former Tory Party treasurer, will be meeting senior Foreign Office officials, although diplomats insist that the discussion will be restricted to the fate of two British hostages in Chechnya, Camilla Carr, 40, and Jon James, 37.