- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

The top official of the breakaway republic of Chechnya yesterday called the Bush administration's decision to upgrade its contacts with the rebels a "diplomatic breakthrough" that puts new pressure on Russia.

"The current statements we are hearing from this new administration tell us that there has definitely been a change in attitude and position from the U.S. government," said Ilyas Akhmadov, minister of foreign affairs for the self-styled Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in an interview yesterday.

News of the proposed meeting provoked an immediate and angry response from Moscow, which maintains it is battling terrorists and criminal gangs in Chechnya.

"Russia views such contacts as absolutely unacceptable," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a top aide to President Vladimir Putin, told Reuters. "They can be understood by Chechen terrorists and separatists as a signal encouraging them to more action."

He added: "Such contacts, if they take place, cannot but have a negative influence on U.S.-Russian ties."

The United States does not recognize the Chechen entity, which is locked in a vicious guerrilla struggle with Moscow. The conflict is the second in the Caucasus Republic in a decade.

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed yesterday that Mr. Akhmadov would be meeting with John Beryle, acting assistant secretary for the department's Bureau of Newly Independent States.

During the Clinton administration, Mr. Akhmadov was only allowed to meet lower-level State Department desk officers, usually at sites outside the State Department building. Mr. Akhmadov said yesterday he did not know where the meeting with Mr. Beryle would be held.

"We consider this a diplomatic breakthrough, for certain," said Mr. Akhmadov, speaking through an interpreter. "It gives us more reason to hope that the Bush administration is going to put relations with Russia on a much more realistic basis."

U.S.-Russian relations face a growing list of irritants, aside from the clash over Chechnya. Among them: differences over a U.S. missile shield; Russia's human rights and nonproliferation record; and the recent arrest of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen on charges of spying for Moscow.

Mr. Boucher yesterday attempted to play down the significance of the meeting with Mr. Akhmadov, noting Clinton administration officials had met with him on a number of previous occasions, as recently as last October at the United Nations.

"We've had meetings before with this gentleman. I don't see anything unusual or upsetting in it," Mr. Boucher said.

He said the United States continues to recognize Russian sovereignty over Chechnya and stands by past statements urging a political solution to the crisis.

But Chechnya remains a particularly sensitive issue for Russia.

Mr. Putin came to power in part because of his decisive handling of the Chechen situation in 1999. Russian forces largely control the region but have been unable to subdue determined Chechen guerrilla groups or impose political or security controls on Chechnya.

Mr. Akhmadov said yesterday he planned to discuss what he said was a deepening humanitarian crisis in Chechnya, saying that the latest conflict has claimed 100,000 lives and driven 400,000 in the republic from their homes. Because the international community does not recognize the Chechen state, those displaced inside Chechnya and in neighboring states are not given the status and protections granted to refugees under international law.

"It is still very, very hard for our people," he said.

Separately, New York-based Human Rights Watch yesterday issued a new report accusing Russian military and security forces of a string of kidnappings, tortures, and civilian killings in Chechnya charges Moscow has strenuously denied.

"While combat between federal forces and Chechen rebels has for the most part ceased, the 'disappearance,' torture and summary execution of detainees continues, marking the transition from a classical internal armed conflict into a classical 'dirty war,' " the organization charged.

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