West is criticised for sheltering militants

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The Independent Online

Russia's foreign minister has reiterated pointed criticism of the United States and Britain for granting asylum to Chechen separatist figures, accusing them of interfering in internal matters and aggravating the situation in Chechnya.

Speaking after a meeting with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Sergey Lavrov said Western countries should not tell Russia how to handle Chechnya, where the second war against separatist rebels in a decade is nearly five years old.

"When our Western partners urge us to rethink our policy and tactics in Chechnya, I would advise them not to interfere in Russian internal matters ­ which they do by granting asylum to terrorists who are directly to blame for the tragedy of the Chechen people." Mr Lavrov's followed similar comments after a wave of terrorist attacks that killed more than 400 people in Russia in the span of a week.

The Kremlin was particularly angered by Britain's granting of refugee status to Akhmed Zakayev, an envoy for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, and by US asylum for Ilyas Akhmadov, who Maskhadov named his foreign minister while he was Chechnya's president during the late 1990s.

Mr Lavrov's meeting with Mr Giuliani, who was mayor of New York when al-Qa'ida suicide attackers struck the World Trade Centre, appeared aimed to press Moscow's assertion that Russia is a victim of international terrorism ­ not just of violence spawned by the Chechen conflict, which critics say Kremlin policy has aggravated.

Mr Giuliani said that when Americans mourn the victims of the 11 September attacks, they will also think about the victims of the hostage-taking raid at a southern Russian school last week that left more than 300 people dead, many of them children.

"Even though these are things that you hope and pray don't happen and you realize that are very tragic, this will bring our people together, because we have been through something very similar," Mr Giuliani said.

"We've unfortunately both now been victims of terrorism on several occasions," he said.

At least six of the raiders who took some 1,200 people hostage at the school in Beslan were from Chechnya, security officials said yesterday, suggesting a strong connection between Russia's persistent conflict in the war-ravaged region and the latest deadly attack.

According to the officials, who reported the identities on condition of anonymity, the other four came from Ingushetia, which is sandwiched between North Ossetia and Chechnya and was targeted in brazen co-ordinated attacks against police that left 90 people dead in June.

President Vladimir Putin and Russian investigators have said about 10 of the roughly 30 attackers were Arabs but authorities have not publicly provided evidence of the assertion. Officials who spoke yesterday made no new mention of Arabs being among the militants.

North Ossetia's Deputy Health Minister Teimuraz Revazov said yesterday that the death of a victim overnight brought the toll among hostages to 329. Security officials have said 11 members of their ranks were killed, and prosecutors have said 30 attackers died.

The presence of Ingush raiders threatens to inflame long-standing tensions between Ingush and ethnic Ossetians, who are the majority in the republic. Mr Putin told the nation Saturday that the school attack was meant to inflame the North Caucasus, an ethnic patchwork that includes North Ossetia, Chechnya and several other mostly Muslim republics. He promised to create a new system of security in the vulnerable region along Russia's southern flank, creating anti-terrorism commissions to stamp out the attacks and prepare better defences for all.

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