- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

The White House yesterday accused Chechnya of harboring terrorists and thanked Russia for joining the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but denied the two developments amounted to a quid pro quo.
"There is no question that there is an international terrorist presence in Chechnya that has links to Osama bin Laden," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters. He demanded that Chechen leaders "immediately" cut all contacts with terrorists.
Moments earlier, Mr. Fleischer said President Bush "wants to thank" Russian President Vladimir Putin for "permission for humanitarian overflights, information about the situation on the ground, as well as search-and-rescue operations, if necessary."
Mr. Fleischer was repeatedly asked if the White House had struck a "deal" with Mr. Putin to denounce Chechnya, which has been struggling for independence from Russia, in exchange for Moscow's support of Mr. Bush's global coalition against terrorism. Previously, the United States has been critical of Russia's often-bloody crackdowns against Chechnya.
"No such conclusion should be reached," the presidential spokesman said.
"The only solution in Chechnya is a political solution," he added. "Respect for human rights and accountability for violations on all sides is crucial to a durable peace there."
His comments echoed statements made earlier in the day by Alexi Arbatov, a member of the Russian State Duma and deputy chairman of that body's defense committee.
"If I were in place of ambassador or secretary of state, for instance, I would say that we are concerned about the violations of human rights which happen in Chechnya, but we also understand that the Chechens are also very clearly connected to the Taliban," Mr. Arbatov told a meeting of American businessmen in Moscow. "And we certainly would cooperate in Russia in order to suppress militant opposition and to achieve a political solution to this issue."
Late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Bush himself made similar statements.
"To the extent that there are terrorists in Chechnya, Arab terrorists, you know, associated with the al Qaeda organization, I believe they ought to be brought to justice," he told reporters in the Roosevelt Room. "Our initial phase of the war on terrorism is against the al Qaeda organization, and we do believe there's some al Qaeda folks in Chechnya.
"However, I do believe it's very important for President Putin to deal with the Chechnya minority in his country with respect respect of human rights and respect of difference of opinion about religion, for example," Mr. Bush added. "And so I would hope that the Russian president, while dealing with the al Qaeda organization, also respects minority rights within his country."
Also yesterday, Mr. Bush met with leaders of the U.S. Sikh community and with the Egyptian foreign minister. The president expressed his sympathy for a Sikh store owner in Arizona who was slain by a man shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Sikhs are a religious group from India who wear traditional turbans.
The president is not the only Western leader to recalibrate his public statements on Chechnya since the catastrophic terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept. 11. During a visit by Mr. Putin to Berlin on Tuesday, German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder said: "Regarding Chechnya, there will be and must be a more differentiated evaluation in world opinion."
Mr. Arbatov appeared to agree.
"It's not the time now to stick to the old position," he said. "And you could always refine your position without compromising your principles, but in such a way that it does not preclude resolving more important, more up-to-date problems."
During a nationally televised address to Russia on Monday, Mr. Putin gave Chechen rebels 72 hours to lay down their weapons and begin peace talks. Yesterday, Mr. Fleischer emphasized the "importance of the speech that President Putin made."
"Leaders of Chechnya have now indicated they are willing to engage in such discussions. That's a positive development," he said. "The president welcomes the sincere steps that have been taken by Russia to engage the Chechen leadership."
Such praise contrasted sharply with the reaction of the United States less than two years ago, when Russia vowed to kill all Chechens who did not flee Grozny within a matter of days.
"I don't think the strategy will work, and therefore it will be expensive, costly and politically damaging internally to them," President Clinton said at the time. "It will affect the attitude of the international community and that is a very heavy price to pay, because it works better when everybody's pulling for Russia."

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