And it had all got off to such a good start ...

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The Independent Online

The spin went badly wrong. It was meant to be a well-orchestrated presentation of how Tony Blair had persuaded Vladimir Putin to seek truth and reconciliation over the Chechen war.

Instead it turned into a tub-thumping defence by Russia's president-elect of his forces' conduct of the war. And then, to rub it in, scathing criticism of Britain and the West for "being afraid" to face the threat of Islamic terrorism.

It had all started off so well, as Mr Blair and Mr Putin ate a cordial lunch at Downing Street and then stood side by side at a Foreign Office press conference. Both wore nearly identical navy suits and dark ties and Mr Blair had on his customary public grin. As befits a former star of the KGB, the Russian leader appeared more watchful.

On cue Mr Putin made his "dramatic" announcement for the media - the setting up of an independent commission to investigate atrocities committed by the Russian army.

He stressed how Mr Blair's visit to St Petersburg had helped pave the way for this. But when questioned as to how effective its role is going to be, Mr Putin said all he knew was "what he had heard from the press".

Russian journalists travelling with Mr Putin pointed out privately that those who will make up the "independent" commission were hardly known for their independence from the Kremlin. It was to get much, much worse.

Mr Putin then launched a fierce, and for his hosts acutely embarrassing, defence of the Russian army in the Chechen conflict. He warned that the West would "pay heavily" for failing to confront the "real seeds" of the conflict. He said: "We have seen European countries and leaders not able to support the Russian fight because they are afraid of a reaction among the Muslim inhabitants of Europe, but that's the wrong conclusion."

By now Mr Blair's grin had a fixed and rather pained look about it. He and Mr Putin left the Durbar Court, a celebration of Britain's own colonial wars of conquest againstMuslim powers of the Indian sub-continent, soon afterwards. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, appeared to stress to the media that Mr Blair, who had faced strong criticism for inviting Mr Putin, had pressed for access by international groups to investigate alleged war crimes.

This was scant justification to groups of British Muslims and Chechen exiles who had gathered across the road from Downing Street to protest atthe visit. "Putin is a murderer" they shouted; "Putin go to hell, Blair go to hell", "Shame on Blair", "Democracy, hypocrisy!" and "What do we want? Jihad!"

They were watched by a large contingent of police officers. There was little of the heavy handed policing in evidence during the visit of the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, in October. But in an echo of what happened then, a number of vans suddenly appeared to shield Mr Putin from any distasteful glimpses of the demonstrators as his Zil limousine swept into Downing Street.

One man was arrested for throwing a stone at the Putin cavalcade; he was taken away struggling and shouting "Allahu Akbar [God is great]".

Some among the crowd of around 150 had their faces covered by chadors to prevent their pictures being taken by Scotland Yard photographers.

Rahimtullah Mansur, who said his friends had been killed at the battle for Grozny, said: "How do we know these photos will not go to the KGB?

"Now that Blair and Putin are such friends. It is disgraceful that the British police are behaving like this. They should be arresting this man, not protecting him."

The Muslim Council of Britain had played a key role in organising the demonstration. It's leader, Dr Ghyas Siddiqui, said: " Muslims from many different background have come here. The people are disgusted that once again business is taking precedence over concerns for human rights violations and war crimes."

Mr Blair says he feels comfortable with Russia's new president; Bill Clinton says the West "can do business with him". But this is no guarantee of political longevity. Margaret Thatcher said the same about the former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose last appearance in Britain was on The Clive James Show.

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