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U.S. Rejects Chechen Separatist Chief

Aslan Maskhadov is labeled 'damaged goods' after the taking of hostages at a Moscow theater by rebels from the Caucasus region.

October 30, 2002|Robyn Dixon and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — The leader of Chechnya's separatist movement, Aslan Maskhadov, was repudiated and isolated Tuesday after a senior U.S. official called him "damaged goods" with links to terrorism in the wake of last week's seizure of a Moscow theater by bomb-toting Chechens.

America's tough rejection of the former Chechen president, whom Washington had previously viewed as a potential negotiating partner with the Russians, leaves the U.S. position on the separatist republic broadly in line with that of Moscow.

While Washington still expresses concerns about abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya, the U.S. official -- who spoke on condition he not be identified -- stressed strong condemnation of Maskhadov and the hostage-takers at the theater. He declared that the Chechen leader should be excluded from any peace talks.

Maskhadov's spokesman, Ahmed Zakayev, has denied that Maskhadov was involved in the attack and has denounced terrorism, but he has said he could understand why the Chechens took their action. The theater standoff ended Saturday when Russian forces stormed the building, leaving about 50 of the attackers and more than 100 of the hostages dead.

Underscoring the harm the attackers did to the Chechens' cause internationally, the U.S. official said Maskhadov had failed to disassociate himself from terrorism. Withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya was the key demand of the hostage-takers.

Chechens won a degree of autonomy for their republic in the Caucasus region after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war. Russian forces marched back into the republic in 1999 and have battled guerrillas there since.

Adding to a sense of crisis in Moscow, a rebel missile brought down a Russian military helicopter in Chechnya on Tuesday, killing four soldiers, authorities said. Defense and security officials met with President Vladimir V. Putin, then pledged even tougher measures against Chechen separatists.

Putin's stance appeared to be paying off in terms of popular support. A poll by the All-Russia Public Opinion Center released Tuesday showed that 85% of respondents approved of Putin's handling of the theater standoff. Russian health authorities have said that in addition to nearly all the hostage-takers, 118 people died in the incident, all but two from a gas used to knock out most of those in the theater before Russian forces stormed it.

Washington has long labeled the Chechen conflict as an internal Russian problem and criticized Russian methods there, but Tuesday's comments confirm a marked shift in policy.

By early September, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, was saying publicly that America viewed Maskhadov with "increasing skepticism" but that he should still be included in any peace talks.

Speaking Tuesday about the hostage ordeal, Vershbow said that some lives probably could have been saved if Russian authorities had given medical personnel more information about the kind of gas used to swiftly render most of those in the theater unconscious before the assault by special forces.

"It's clear that with perhaps a little more information, at least a few more of the hostages may have survived," Vershbow said.

"To the best of our knowledge, based on our own doctors who visited some of the American hostages and were able to do their own assessment and talk to some of the Russian medical officials, we do think that [the gas used] was an opiate," he added. He said he believes it was a drug known as fentanyl, long used as an anesthetic in hospitals in many countries. "But we have still not received official confirmation of that fact from Russian authorities," he said.

Still, Vershbow said he wouldn't second-guess the Russian decision to launch the assault. "They had a difficult decision to make, and with the bombs that were there they probably saved hundreds of lives, even if we regret that more than 100 died, largely as a result of the gas," he said.

Some medical experts, however, have said that no general anesthetic could have been delivered to the auditorium in sufficient concentrations to put so many people to sleep so quickly.

The All-Russia Public Opinion Center poll also asked whether Russia should take a far tougher approach in Chechnya, comparable to "resolute actions ... America has carried out after Sept. 11." Of those surveyed, 54% said yes and 36% said no.

Since the United States declared its war against terrorism, it has accepted Russian warnings that Chechen fighters were linked to international terrorism and the Al Qaeda network.

The senior U.S. official who spoke Tuesday said that while there was no evidence of a direct Al Qaeda link in last week's theater siege, it was clear that Al Qaeda operatives had trained Chechen fighters in Afghanistan and in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a lawless area just across the border that Chechen fighters have used as a refuge.

U.S. concern about Maskhadov focuses on his links to another rebel commander, Shamil Basayev.

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