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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 20:53 GMT 21:53 UK
Chechens in talks as deadline passes
Russian Interior Ministry troops in a trench 25 kilometres south of Grosny
Russian forces have been unable to quell the rebellion
A senior Russian official has met representatives of the Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, as a deadline for the separatists to begin peace talks ran out.

The two sides held preliminary talks to discuss President Putin's demands that the rebels should disarm before any peace negotiations, but the Russian envoy, Viktor Kazantsev, said the Chechens were reluctant to do so.

"We have barely started," Mr Kazantsev said on Russian TV. "I'm not saying they're ready, they have doubts."

Reports from Chechnya say that so far only a few weapons have been handed in by civilians.

Russia gave the Chechens 72 hours to hand in their weapons and begin talks to end their two year fight for independence.

The deadline came as President Bush called on the Chechens to cut their links with terrorists, especially Osama Bin Laden.

A woman views the rubble in Grozny
Grozny has been devastated by the fighting
Russia believes this could be a turning point in its two year battle with the Chechen rebels.

President Putin is not saying what will happen if there is no disarmament.

But BBC Moscow correspondent Jonathan Charles says it could be the signal for the start of a renewed Russian offensive, including air strikes on rebel positions.

The Chechens political leader, Aslan Maskhadov, has welcomed the offer of peace talks, but his influence over rebel fighters is not as strong as it once was.

Different atmosphere

The Russians are also hoping to take advantage of the changed international atmosphere in the wake of the 11 September attacks in America.

American criticism of Russia's actions in Chechnya is being softened.

Russia has claimed that Osama Bin Laden has supplied the Chechens with some weapons in recent years.

The Americans deny their softer stance is part of a deal with Moscow, but many Russians believe it is the least they deserve for opening their air-space to American planes for possible operations against Afghanistan.

The BBC's Rob Broomby
"The Russians accuse the Chechens of having links with Osama Bin Laden"
The BBC's Jonathan Charles in Moscow
"President Putin believes he has the support of the West"
Russian ambassador to Britain, Grigory Karasin
"There should not be any appeasement to terrorists wherever they are"
See also:

28 Sep 01 | Europe
Analysis: New rules in Chechnya
06 Sep 01 | Europe
Chechnya's decade of disaster
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