More than just a pawn in a game? Chess chief's bold move to visit Assad

Federation president played with Gaddafi and was friends with Saddam – but is there any defence against his trip to Damascus?

Moscow

Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, may have a lot on his mind at the moment, but he found time this week for a three-hour meeting to discuss an important policy: the teaching of chess in schools.

Mr Assad does not get many visits from international dignitaries these days, but he held a lengthy meeting late on Sunday with the eccentric Russian politician Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of Fide, the world chess federation.

The visit to Damascus was the latest in a long line of bizarre trips for Mr Ilyumzhinov, who used to run the Russian region of Kalmykia and claims to have been abducted by aliens. At one time or another, he has counted Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Chuck Norris among his friends.

Mr Ilyumzhinov said after the meeting that he would sign an agreement with Mr Assad on the compulsory teaching of chess in Syrian schools, and also mentioned the pair had discussed a plan to hold a conference of Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Damascus in the near future. Additionally, Mr Ilyumzhinov, a Buddhist, said Mr Assad had agreed to invite the Dalai Lama to Syria. The Syrian leader also appears to have found time for a game of chess. "He's very good, he learned while studying in London," Mr Ilyumzhinov said.

Not all the discussion revolved around chess and Buddhism, however. "Of course, we couldn't avoid talking about the situation in Syria," Mr Ilyumzhinov told Interfax news agency. "Assad says he is adhering to the Kofi Annan peace plan. But the situation is being destabilised by the opposition, who are receiving huge numbers of weapons from neighbouring countries."

Mr Ilyumzhinov said he witnessed two bombs in Damascus set off by opposition forces. His position mirrors the official stance of Moscow, which throughout the conflict has said the West's stance is simplistic. Russia has blocked UN Security Council resolutions condemning Syria, but has backed the Annan peace plan.

Mr Ilyumzhinov has repeatedly claimed he was abducted from his Moscow apartment by aliens. In an interview with The Independent two years ago, he also insisted that chess was brought to Earth by aliens.

He has also been accused of involvement in the assassination of an investigative journalist who had discovered corrupt financial schemes in the republic. He denied all responsibility. Two of his aides were jailed for the murder.

It is unclear to what extent Russia uses Mr Ilyumzhinov's visits as opportunities to get across diplomatic messages unofficially. He visited Colonel Gaddafi last summer during the height of the Libyan conflict and played a game of chess with him before talking politics. He described Gaddafi as a personal friend, and said he spoke with him by phone in the weeks before his death.

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