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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Chechen leader 'agrees to talks'
A Thai newspaper carries a scoop on Bin Laden
A Thai paper says Osama Bin Laden is hiding in Chechnya
Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov has reportedly indicated that he is willing to hold talks with the Russian authorities.

A statement, published on a rebel Chechen website, comes a day after the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, made an unprecedented offer of talks to the rebels in Chechnya - but only after they laid down their arms.

A woman views the rubble in Grozny
Fighting has reduced Grozny to rubble
The text, attributed to Mr Maskhadov, said he had named an special envoy to conduct possible peace negotiations with Moscow.

But a senior official in the Putin administration said that any talks must take place wihout intermediaries.

The ITAR-TASS news agency also said there were no reports so far of rebels handing over their arms to the Russians.

Shelling

Shelling is continuing in the breakaway republic, according to the agency, and there was no sign of contact between the two sides.

Late on Tuesday, responding to a 72-hour ultimatum from President Putin, a statement by Mr Maskhadov was carried on the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria web site.

It said: "I think that in connection with the new proposal of the Russian president there is a real chance to start negotiations for a speedy cessation of hostilities and a peaceful resolution of disagreements."

Mr Maskhadov's spokesman also reportedly told the French news agency AFP by telephone on Tuesday that there were "real chances" for peace talks.

But the Russian news agency Interfax quoted Viktor Kazantsev, President Putin's top representative in southern Russia, as saying.that the talks would have to take place "without preconditions or mediators".

One of Mr Maskhadov's spokesmen told a Moscow radio station that President Putin's announcement merely offered the first chance for contact in several years.

Little public support

BBC Russian affairs analyst Stephen Dalziel says there is doubt over how many Chechens still recognise Mr Maskhadov's authority.

He says that it could be a sizeable chunk of the Chechen population that does not support Mr Maskhadov's offer of talks.

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov
Maskhadov: Doubts over his authrority in Chechnya
Although many Chechens had tired of the anarchy which has dominated their lives since Russian troops withdrew in 1996, the Russians lost much potential support because of the brutality of their military campaign.

Russian officials have consistently sought to link the Chechen insurgency with Islamic militancy, claiming they are trained and funded by other Islamic organisations.

The BBC's Eurasia analyst, Malcolm Haslett, says that Mr Putin's offer - which is also an ultimatum - clearly reflects a sense that his co-operation in the planned US operations in Afghanistan allows Russia to handle Chechnya in its own way.

But he says that it also represents a certain softening of the Russian approach - their offer of peace talks indicates a chance of a political settlement.

See also:

06 Sep 01 | Europe
Chechnya's decade of disaster
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