Vladimir Putin put up a vigorous defence yesterday of Russia's military crackdown in Chechnya, describing it as an attempt to stamp out "terrorists and extremists" in the breakaway republic.
Relishing the opportunity to set the record straight for the West on his Chechnya policy during his first visit outside Russia since his election, the Russian president-elect repeated the official line that has not wavered since Moscow unleashed its forces on the rebel Muslim republic last September. With Tony Blair at his side at a joint news conference, he reminded reporters that Moscow launched its offensive after Chechen militants invaded the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. Chechnya was being used as "a launching pad for undermining Russian sovereignty", he stressed.
Mr Putin did not explain why it was necessary to target Chechnya's civilian population in the war which has flattened the capital, Grozny, forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, and left thousands dead. Russian forces who are still fighting Chechen guerrillas in the republic have, meanwhile, been accused of atrocities, prompting human rights organisations to demand an international inquiry.
"The actions of Russia are a struggle against extremism," Mr Putin said yesterday. "They are directed entirely against international extremism and terrorism."
Mr Blair was under pressure from organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to take a strong stand in his Downing Street talks with Mr Putin. The human rights bodies are calling for an investigation into three massacres in which 125 civilians were murdered. But the Prime Minister appeared conciliatory yesterday, stressing he did not want to isolate Moscow on the Chechnya issue.
He welcomed Mr Putin's promise that Russia was launching its own inquiry into human rights violations in Chechnya, although this has been dismissed by human rights activists as inadequate.
Acknowledging the dozens of protesters outside Downing Street demanding an end to the "torture in Chechnya", Mr Blair said: "Some say that because of our concerns about Chechnya we should keep some distance from Moscow. I have to tell you that while I share those concerns, I believe that the best way to register those concerns and to get results is by engaging with Russia and not isolating Russia."
Mr Blair made it clear that he was ready to mediate between Moscow and Washington to overcome Russian resistance to US plans for an anti-missile shield aimed to defend the United States against attack by "rogue states".
Mr Putin, whose victory in Russian presidential elections last month was widely attributed to his hard line on Chechnya as the acting president, is under increasing pressure from the West to find a diplomatic solution to the Chechen war.
Before seeing Mr Blair for their three-hour meeting, Mr Putin appealed to business leaders to invest in the "new Russia", saying that Moscow would do everything possible to modernise its economy. He promised to reduce taxes, respect ownership of property, reform regulations and ensure they were applied consistently.
He took tea with the Queen at Windsor Castle before flying to Ukraine last night.
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