- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 9, 2004

The massacre of children by Muslim terrorists in southern Russia has widened a rift between Washington and Moscow on how to resolve the conflict in Chechnya and threatened to undermine the two countries’ cooperation in the fight against global terrorism.

Western countries “bear direct responsibility for the tragedy of the Chechen people when they give political asylum to terrorists,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday.

“When our Western partners say we should re-examine our policy, what you call our tactics, I would advise them not to interfere in our Russian internal affairs,” he said after a meeting with former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in Moscow.

Mr. Lavrov was referring to Ilyas Akhmadov and Akhmed Zakayev.

Beyond that, Russian officials have expressed anger at U.S. calls for a political settlement in Chechnya in contrast to Russia’s commitment to purse a war on its own terror to victory.

Mr. Akhmadov was given asylum by the United States this summer and is currently in the Washington area. Mr. Zakayev lives in London.

U.S. officials said asylum decisions are made by the Justice Department and immigration judges on the merits of a case and not with foreign policy considerations in mind.

The State Department was not consulted in Mr. Akhmadov’s case, they said. Some officials there were not happy about the decision’s timing, but they noted that it was coincidental.

Both men are representatives of separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, who is considered a “moderate” by some diplomats. They have also been linked to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.

Moscow has labeled Mr. Maskhadov and Mr. Basayev terrorists and blamed them for last week’s school siege in southern Russia, which took the lives of at least 326 hostages, about half of them children.

On Wednesday, the Russian authorities offered a $10 million reward for information leading to the two men. Yesterday, Chechen rebels promised on a Web site to pay $20 million to anyone who can help them capture Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Maskhadov, who was president of Chechnya during a brief period of independence in the 1990s, has denied involvement in the three-day siege in the Northern Ossetian town of Beslan.

Chechen terrorists are also being held responsible for two plane crashes and a Moscow subway station bombing, which occurred days before last week’s attack and killed more than 400 civilians.

The United States and other Western countries strongly condemned the recent acts and agreed that the terrorists who committed them must be punished.

But the United States and other Western governments consider Mr. Maskhadov and other rebels legitimate participants in Chechnya’s political life with whom Moscow should negotiate in resolving the conflict.

“We can’t understand how we are supposed to fight terrorism together if the other side gives asylum to terrorists,” a Russian diplomat said in a telephone interview yesterday, referring to the United States.

“What happened last week was our September 11,” he said.

One U.S. official said: “It is not the intention of the asylum law to protect criminals and terrorists.”

So far, however, the Russian government has not presented evidence that could reopen Mr. Akhmadov’s case, which was decided earlier this summer, officials said.

Mr. Giuliani tried to look for the silver lining in the aftermath of the school siege.

“I do believe this will bring our people closer because we have been through something similar,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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