Putin aims for direct control over Chechnya

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is to seek parliamentary approval for a law granting Moscow direct rule over Chechnya for up to two years. The move will mean the cancellation of elections in the breakaway republic and shows that Mr Putin has given up hope of creating a credible pro-Russian Chechen leadership to compete with the guerrillas.

The announcement, the day after Mr Putin was inaugurated as President in the Kremlin, came as Russia admitted that it had lost an SU-24 bomber over Chechnya. Rebel forces said they shot it down with a Russian-made Igla (needle) missile near the town of Vedeno in the south. They said they were hunting for the pilot.

The Chechens have used Igla missiles in the past, rewiring them to disable the "friend-or-foe identification system" which the federal forces use to stop them accidentally shooting down their own aircraft. The rebels have not yet, however, been able to pose a serious enough threat to Russian aircraft to hinder the bombing campaign.

Direct rule by Moscow further complicates Russia's relationship with President Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, now hunted in the republic's southern mountains. He was elected with 59 per cent of the vote in 1997 in a poll deemed fair by monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. At the time, the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, congratulated Mr Maskhadov on his victory, although he was studiously vague about Chechnya's status within the federation.

Moscow has hitherto ruled out negotiations with President Maskhadov on the grounds that he does not control his own guerrilla commanders. His failure to obtain the release of some 200 kidnap victims, both Russian and Chechen, is evidence of his limited power. He does, however, appear to co-ordinate the military campaign and is seen by most of the country as the elected leader.

Mr Putin's introduction of direct rule is a radical departure from Mr Yeltsin's efforts during the last Chechen war in 1994-96 to find Chechens willing to work with Moscow. During the present war, Russia was reduced to releasing from prison to serve as its local ally Beslan Gantemirov, a convicted embezzler, believed to have siphoned off more than $6m (£3.9m) when he was mayor of Grozny.

A spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry said yesterday that talks with Mr Maskhadov made no sense at all and would be a step backwards for Russia.

Earlier, Mr Putin had made elliptical statements about talking to the Chechen leader, although diplomats in Moscow suspect these may have been intended to deflate west European pressure on him to open talks. The problem for Mr Putin is that, however limited Mr Maskhadov's credibility, no other leader in the republic has any at all.

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