U.S. says Russia fights terror in Chechnya

White House statement seen as reward for Putin after his offer of support

Terrorism Strikes America The World

September 27, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The White House bestowed a diplomatic reward on Russia yesterday, declaring that Moscow confronts "an international terrorist presence" in its breakaway province of Chechnya that has links to Osama bin Laden.

The United States recently gained Russia's crucial support for its anti-terrorist mission in Afghanistan. This week, President Vladimir V. Putin broke with long-standing policy, saying Russia would allow American troops and aircraft to be based in the Central Asian region of the former Soviet Union near Afghanistan.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer praised yesterday what he called "sincere steps" by Moscow to negotiate a political solution to the Chechen war.

Putin has frequently sought to justify Russia's use of heavy force against Muslim rebels in Chechnya by saying that his military is fighting "terrorists," not separatists. In the past, the United States has joined in widespread criticism of Russian human rights violations in Chechnya. The new White House stance seemed likely to bolster Putin's justification.

After Fleischer's comments caused a stir, President Bush asserted that Washington believes that terrorists with ties to bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network have operated out of Chechnya. But the president sought to dispel the idea that the United States was giving Russia a green light to step up its campaign in Chechnya.

"We do believe there are some al-Qaida folks in Chechnya," Bush said, adding: "It's very important for President Putin to deal with the Chechen minority in this country with respect, respect of human rights and respect of difference of opinion - about religion, for example.

"And so I would hope that the Russian president, while dealing with the al-Qaida organization, also respects minority rights within his country."

The assertion that al-Qaida is operating in Chechnya is not new. Testifying before Congress in November 1999, during the Clinton administration, the State Department's point man for the former Soviet Union said:

"There are real terrorists and violent insurgent groups in the North Caucasus. Chechen insurgents are receiving help from radical groups in other countries, including Osama bin Laden's network and others who have attacked or threatened Americans and American interests."

But Stephen Sestanovich coupled his statement with sharp criticism of what he called Russia's "indiscriminate use of force" against the Chechens - criticism that the White House pointedly did not repeat yesterday.

"The Russian military offensive in Chechnya that was launched on Oct. 1 has steadily escalated," Sestanovich testified in 1999. "A relentless bombing and artillery campaign has been carried out in nearly all parts of the republic." He went on to say, "This use of indiscriminate force against innocent civilians is indefensible, and we condemn it."

In contrast, both Bush and Fleischer avoided outright criticism of Russia for human rights violations, even though the latest State Department human rights report describes Russia's record in Chechnya last year as "poor" and said that "there were credible reports of serious violations."

Putin's decision to allow U.S. forces into the Central Asian republics reversed decades of Soviet and Russian policy and put him at odds with the views of his own security establishment. It opened the way for U.S. planes to fly over the region and for the United States to station special forces, aircraft and search-and-rescue teams in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or both.

Michael McFaul, a Russia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of the latest White House comments:

"I don't think it's a coincidence, two days after Putin's bold statement changing Russian policy rather fundamentally to support our effort. What it really represents is that Putin is trying to move in a more dramatic way toward the West."

In contrast with the beliefs of some in the Moscow security establishment, McFaul said, Putin's "gut instinct is that Russia is best-served by being more integrated with the West."

McFaul said the White House statements offer Putin some "cover" to continue to fight the Chechens. But he said he doubts the statements will make a practical difference in how Russia conducts the war, given that Russia has long ignored criticism of its conduct in Chechnya.

The White House statements, however, are just the latest example of how American foreign policy in a number of areas is being driven by Bush's war on terrorism and his effort to build a coalition. In recent days, the United States has rewarded Pakistan by lifting sanctions imposed for conducting nuclear weapons tests and has even reached out to Iran.

On Monday, Putin gave Chechen rebels 72 hours to start talks with Moscow officials. He did not say what would happen if they did not open negotiations.

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