Wednesday, September 8, 2004

The United States and Russia clashed yesterday over a way to end the conflict in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, with Washington calling for a political solution and Moscow vowing to crush the separatist movement.

Days after a school siege in the Northern Ossetia region that claimed at least 350 lives, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West — and the United States in particular — of having a double standard when dealing with terrorism.

“Why don’t you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?” Mr. Putin told foreign reporters in Moscow late Monday.

“You find it possible to set some limitations in your dealings with these [terrorists]? So why should we talk to people who are child killers?” he said, according to one of the translations of his remarks in the British press.

About half of the casualties of last week’s attack in the southern town of Beslan were children. Foreign fighters are said to have joined the Chechens in the attack. It came a week after two plane crashes and a Moscow subway station bombing, all of which have been attributed to Chechen terrorists.

Mr. Putin said the West should have “no more questions about our policy in Chechnya,” where Russian forces have been fighting the separatists for more than a decade.

The Bush administration strongly condemned the school siege and called it an act of international terrorism.

“There really are no free passes in this struggle, this war,” said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. “No free passes for countries, no free passes for individuals.”

But the State Department said, “There must be a political settlement” to the Chechen conflict.

Challenging Mr. Putin’s blanket definition of “terrorists” as everyone working for Chechen independence, the administration has made a distinction between the terrorists responsible for the attacks and legitimate separatist leaders.

“There is no question that the people carrying out these acts have no political affiliation; they have a terrorist affiliation, and one shouldn’t confuse the two things,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

Mr. Putin accused the United States of undermining his country’s war on terrorism, citing meetings that mid-level U.S. officials have had with Chechen leaders.

“President Putin is making references to occasional visits, not one recently, by Chechen personalities to staff members in the State Department as part of our way of keeping informed about the situation in the region,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters.

Later, U.S. officials said the last formal meeting with a high-level Chechen leader took place in September 2001 and was hosted by the Russia desk at the State Department. They did not specify a name, but on Jan. 23, 2002, the Russia desk director met with Ilyas Akhmadov during a conference in Washington.

Mr. Akhmadov, “foreign minister” in the self-styled government of separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov whom Moscow has accused of terrorism, was granted political asylum in the United States earlier this summer.

“As we have said before, we recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Chechnya,” Mr. Boucher told reporters on Jan. 24, 2002. “We did not meet with Mr. Akhmadov in any official capacity, but as an individual with particular insights into the Chechen conflict.”

“We do have a policy that says we will meet with political officials, leaders who have different points of view. We’ve done that in the past. We may or may not do that in the future, depending on who these individuals might be,” Mr. Boucher said yesterday.

“But we do not meet with terrorists and people who are involved in terrorism,” he said.

Having repeatedly leveled harsh criticism of Moscow’s wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, the United States became more sympathetic to Mr. Putin’s challenge in the province after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

In 2002, the State Department designated several Chechen groups as foreign terrorist organizations.

The administration yesterday tried to shift the focus from the sharp disagreement over policy to solidarity with the victims in Beslan — and all of Russia — in the wake of last week’s attack.

“We are absolutely united in condemning this horrible action that took place in this small town,” Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Boucher said two C-130 U.S. cargo planes had flown medical supplies worth about $580,000, which were stockpiled in Germany, to Russia and planned an additional flight from Italy.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, released $50,000 in emergency assistance, Mr. Boucher said.

In Moscow yesterday, about 130,000 people rallied outside the Kremlin in a government-sponsored demonstration against terrorism.

Mr. Putin said he would authorize an internal investigation into the tragedy in Beslan, but not a parliamentary or independent inquiry, because it would turn into a “political show.”

“I want to establish the chronicle of events and find out who is responsible and might be punished,” he said.

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