Road to peace blocked for Chechen president

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The Independent Online
RESIDENTS OF Dagestan, the Russian region raided by Chechen militants, blocked a border road yesterday, preventing a visit by Chechnya's moderate President, Aslan Maskhadov, which might have helped to stop the war with Moscow.

President Maskhadov, whose breakaway region Russia has bombed for the past week in punishment for the guerrilla raids and terrorist attacks in Moscow, asked for a meeting with Magomedali Magomedov, the pro-Moscow leader of Dagestan.

Mr Magomedov was not inclined to see President Maskhadov until he apologised for two incursions, this month and last, by militants beyond the control of the Grozny government. The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, instructed that the meeting should go ahead. Furious Dagestanis had other ideas, however.

Their homes in the Botlikh and Novolaksk districts had been looted by the renegade Chechens, then further damaged in Russian army operations to expel the invaders. While they had been suffering, President Maskhadov had kept silent, failing to condemn the fundamentalists. Only when Russia started bombing Chechnya did President Maskhadov show an interest in negotiations, they said.

The enraged Dagestanis, numbering several hundred, blocked the Gerzel Bridge on the border between Chechnya and Dagestan, where the talks had been due to take place.

President Maskhadov was forced to make a humiliating return to Grozny while Mr Magomedov, apparently happy to be overruled by his own people, ordered his limousine back to the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala.

Prime Minister Putin ruled out any meeting between President Maskhadov and President Boris Yeltsin until talks were likely to be "profitable for Russia". But evidently he had hoped that some progress might be made at lower-level, local negotiations. Moscow wanted to see the leaders of Chechnya showing a constructive attitude, he said. That meant clearly condemning terrorism and handing over the militants, put by Russia on to Interpol's wanted list.

Prime Minister Putin was speaking during a visit to Chuvashia, another ethnic region on the Volga river. Since the Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, declared his aim to secure independence for his region and other non-Russian regions, Moscow has been working harder to strengthen the federation.

Meanwhile, the Russian air force bombed Grozny for the seventh day yesterday while Chechen civilians continued to stream over the western border into Ingushetia. Some 60,000 refugees are huddling in tents and the Ingush authorities fear the figure could rise to as many as 200,000.

Earlier this week, noting that winter would soon make conditions even harsher, they asked the international community to help. But after Prime Minister Putin slapped down the Ingush President, Ruslan Aushev, saying that Russia could cope with the emergency, there have been no more appeals.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was examining the possibility of sending staff, based in the Russian region of Stavropol, to assist Ingushetia. But international aid agencies are reluctant to commit expatriates to an area that has become notorious for hostage taking. In January 1998, kidnappers abducted a French staff member of the UNHCR and held him for 11 months until Russian commandos released him.

Moscow, angered by terrorist bombings that killed nearly 300 people in Russian cities this month, is still insisting that it is only punishing militants from the air and not planning a land invasion of Chechnya. However, the Russian newspaper Sevodnya claimed yesterday that the military had a plan to take the low-lying parts of Chechnya and to set up a pro-Moscow government there. The army was just waiting for a green light from the politicians, it said.