Putin says Russia has exchanged peace plans with Chechen president


MOSCOW -- In a sign that Russia is looking for a political solution to its war in Chechnya, President-elect Vladimir V. Putin acknowledged yesterday for the first time that Moscow had exchanged peace plans with the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov.

Putin indicated that his government is ready to talk with a man who seven months ago, at the start of the second Chechen war, it considered politically irrelevant.

A glimmer of a political opening also came from the other side yesterday, as Maskhadov, in a newspaper interview, said he had ordered Chechen guerrillas "to suspend combat operations."

"This was part of the plan on a peaceful settlement I suggested to Moscow," said Maskhadov, who said he maintains full control over Chechnya's field commanders, the rival warlords who are the real rulers of the region.

The war, which initially had been very popular with the Russian public and gave Putin his first political boost, has begun to prove costly to the Kremlin financially, diplomatically and politically, as the number of Russian casualties this month topped 2,000.

In their comments, Putin and Maskhadov revealed the gulf that separates them, with Putin contemptuously dismissing the Chechen leader as a criminal and a figurehead.

"He decides nothing and will never decide anything," Putin said. "He is being used to carry out tactical tasks, but those who are using him will soon realize that he cannot do this, and their attitude toward him will change."

Maskhadov complained that his overtures to Moscow had gone unanswered. Putin said Maskhadov had let the exchange lapse into silence.

"We have every reason to believe that we do have others we can deal with apart from Maskhadov and the bandits," Putin said.

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