- Associated Press - Friday, September 17, 2010

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A senior Chechen separatist wanted in Russia for suspected murder, kidnapping and terrorism was arrested Friday in Poland where he was to attend a conference organized by the World Chechen Congress, police said.

Akhmed Zakayev, who lives in Britain, was apprehended “without any trouble” on an international warrant issued by Russia and was turned over to prosecutors, national police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said.

Russia accuses the 51-year-old activist of kidnapping and murder during a separatist war in Chechnya in the 1990s. Mr. Zakayev and his supporters have said the allegations are trumped up, and that he represents the political faction of Chechnya’s separatist movement and has no connection to the military wing spearheading the region’s insurgency.

Prosecutors were examining the Russian warrant and other documents before questioning Mr. Zakayev and deciding whether to extradite or release him, prosecutors’ spokeswoman Monika Lewandowska said.

Mr. Zakayev — who with his silver beard and impeccable grooming looks more the diplomat than guerrilla fighter — appeared relaxed, in white shirt and suit, as he arrived in a police car at the prosecutor’s office.

“He is approaching it all with a large dose of calm,” said Adam Borowski, a conference organizer who was with Mr. Zakayev at the time of his arrest. He told the Associated Press that Mr. Zakayev had learned he was wanted and was on his way to see prosecutors when he was picked up.

“He says he believes that Poland, as a democratic country, will not believe Russia’s fabricated evidence. He believes that Poland will not extradite him and that he will be released.”

Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on national radio that decisions concerning Mr. Zakayev will be taken “in accordance with our understanding of Poland’s interests and with our sense of decency and justice, and we will not be trying to meet anybody’s expectations.”

At Russia’s request, international police agency Interpol had put out a “red notice” on Mr. Zakayev — the equivalent of putting him on its most-wanted list. An Interpol red notice is not a warrant, but shares one country’s warrant with other member countries.

Mr. Sokolowski said that detailed information from Russia with dates and places where Mr. Zakayev would be in Poland triggered the arrest. On previous visits to Poland, Mr. Zakayev moved freely.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said only that officials are closely following the situation and are in contact with the Polish authorities.

Marina Gridneva, a spokeswoman for the Russian Prosecutor General’s office, said her office is preparing to send materials on Mr. Zakayev’s case translated into Polish to support the extradition request.

Earlier this week Russian Ambassador to Poland Alexander Alekseev said Russia “has proof” that Mr. Zakayev had been involved in terrorism, and Moscow would expect Poland to arrest him if he came to the country.

In 2002, Russia tried to have Mr. Zakayev extradited from Denmark where he was attending the two-day World Chechen Congress. Danish authorities ruled, however, that Russia failed to provide sufficient evidence for his extradition, and Mr. Zakayev was released.

He then flew to London, where he was picked up on a warrant distributed by Interpol. British authorities eventually decided not to extradite him, instead granting him refugee statue saying that he risked being tortured if he was sent back.

The day before his arrest, Mr. Zakayev told Radio Free Europe’s North Caucasus Service in a telephone interview from Warsaw that he was happy to “answer any questions” from the Polish prosecutor’s office.

“I don’t think Russia has presented any new information [to Polish authorities],” Mr. Zakayev said. “Everything they have has already been considered twice by courts in Denmark and Britain. However, if it is necessary, and if Polish authorities decide that these questions should be considered by a Polish court, I am ready for such a turn of events.”

Mr. Zakayev entered politics in 1994, when as an actor he was named culture minister by Chechnya’s first separatist president just months before the Russian army rolled in to crush the tiny mountainous region’s independence bid. The war ended in a cease-fire and a humiliating Russian withdrawal that left Chechnya de facto independent and largely lawless.

When the Russian army marched back into Chechnya in 1999, Mr. Zakayev was a top assistant to separatist President Aslan Maskhadov. Mr. Zakayev was wounded and left Chechnya, becoming Mr. Maskhadov’s top envoy abroad.

Mr. Zakayev’s charisma has won him many supporters, including actress Vanessa Redgrave, who has campaigned in his support and paid his $98,000 bail after he was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport in December 2002.

He has said he represents the Chechen separatist political faction, and distanced himself from radical Islamic rebels. This year he denounced the militant leader who claimed responsibility for the Moscow subway bombings in March, which he described as a “monstrous crime.”

Polish authorities in the past have been supportive of a small but active Chechen diaspora there, but the arrest comes at a time when the tense relationship between Warsaw and Moscow has begun to thaw.

Following the historical animosity between the two nations — exacerbated after the fall of communism by Poland’s joining of NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004 — the April plane crash in Russia that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other top Polish officials brought an outpouring of sympathy from Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is to visit Poland later this year as a sign of a “new start” in bilateral relations that offer a huge potential in all fields, Alekseev said this week.

Conference organizer Mr. Borowski noted that Mr. Zakayev had frequently visited Poland in the past.

“I think that the Chechens are the first victim of the warming of [Poland‘s] ties with Russia,” he said.

Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Angela Charlton in Paris, Karel Janicek in Prague and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

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