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Thatcher link to Chechens will embarrass UK

BARONESS Thatcher will host a dinner for the president of the breakaway republic of Chechnya in London next week, in a demonstrative act of support which seems likely to irritate and embarrass the Foreign Office in equal measure. The British government has kept the Chechens at arm's length, despite their continued proclamations of independence. In Moscow and Chechnya, the former prime minister remains a name to conjure with.

Aslan Maskhadov will have no shortage of big-name supporters during his time in London. Imran Khan is hosting a dinner for the Chechen leader, as is the former chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Tebbit. Mr Maskhadov's visit is being hosted by Lord McAlpine, businessman and former Tory treasurer. Lord McAlpine was an important ally of the late Sir James Goldsmith, whose daughter Jemima is married to Imran Khan.

Lady Thatcher's support for Mr Maskhadov is a remarkable turnaround. During the Soviet era, she was the most loyal international supporter of the then Kremlin leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and was notably reluctant to criticise the Soviet use of force against the Baltic states and in the Caucasus.

Part of the explanation for her high-profile support for Mr Maskhadov may lie in her warm relationship with Lord MacAlpine, who has become the most vocal supporter in Britain of the Chechen cause.

The Chechen leadership is keen to distant itself from international perceptions of lawlessness. In what may partly be an attempt to gain favourable publicity ahead of next week's visit, Chechnya yesterday announced a reward of $100,000 (pounds 62,000) for anyone helping to find the two British aid workers who were kidnapped in Chechnya last year, Camilla Carr and Jon James. The government appealed to the kidnappers: "If you still have honour and conscience, and feel any compassion for the Chechen people, you must release the hostages."

Lord McAlpine's support for the Chechens is said by his friends to be based on an "instant affinity" and his liking for "a very impressive people". He visited Chechnya last year, and has played an important role in trying to establish investment funds for Chechnya, where he seems set to become a key regional player.

Analysts of Caucasian affairs argue that Lord McAlpine is also interested in the potential commercial spin-offs in the region. The routing of an oil pipeline through Chechnya could have key implications in the years to come. A new Chechen-led investment fund wants to raise $3bn (pounds 1.86bn) for the Caucasus region.

When Chechnya declared independence from Russia, President Yeltsin launched a bloody war against the rebels. Large parts of the capital, Grozny, and other Chechen towns were destroyed. Tens of thousands died.

A peace agreement left Chechnya as a kind of no-man's-land. The Russians have partly renounced their claim to dominate Chechnya, while still refusing to acknowledge Chechnya as an international player.