Russian forces claim capture of top Chechen commander

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The Independent Online

Russian commandos captured the Chechen president's military chief of staff in a special operation and brought him to Moscow for questioning, officials said Friday.

Russian commandos captured the Chechen president's military chief of staff in a special operation and brought him to Moscow for questioning, officials said Friday.

Apti Batalov, a brigadier general in the rebel army and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's chief of staff, was seized by a special squad of Federal Security Service troops in the town of Shali on Thursday, an agency spokesman said.

He was brought to Moscow and jailed in Lefortovo prison, where he will be questioned over his role in the Chechen war, said the spokesman, who declined to be named. There was no independent confirmation of the Russian claim.

Groups of rebels in southern Chechnya continued to stage hit-and-run attacks on Russian positions. Four Russian checkpoints were fired at during the past 24 hours, the military command said Friday.

Russian warplanes continued to bomb and strafe rebel bases in the Vedeno and Argun gorges in the southern mountains and near the towns of Nozhai-Yurt and Urus Martan, the military command said. It said Russian jet fighters and bombers flew 39 combat missions since Thursday.

Russia on Thursday gave new indications that it is seeking a political way out of the Chechen war. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the Kremlin was conducting a direct dialogue with unidentified Chechens and predicted that it would "lead to concrete results."

Ivanov did not elaborate except to say talks had been going on for some time.

Russia in recent weeks has made several statements indicating new efforts to find a solution. Among them was the statement by Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's Chechnya spokesman, that Maskhadov could qualify for amnesty even though he has been charged with abetting armed rebellion.

Moscow sees Maskhadov as a relative moderate and could be seeking to drive a wedge between him and Chechen warlords.

Russian ground troops entered Chechnya in September, after militants based there invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan. After seizing about two-thirds of Chechnya in steady advances across the republic's flatlands, Russia's offensive has bogged down in the mountains.

There has been a lull in fighting in recent days, with Russia apparently unwilling to risk the bloodshed of a full drive into the mountains.

Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the chairwoman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was to travel to Chechnya on Friday. The OSCE is among the international organizations expressing concern over wide allegations of human-rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya.

Russia has denied allegations that its forces executed civilians and tortured detainees. But President Vladimir Putin, who met Ferrero-Waldner on Thursday, issued a statement saying that rights violations were being thoroughly investigated.

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