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Sunday, 18 November, 2001, 13:27 GMT
Moscow opens Chechnya peace talks
Russian Interior Ministry troops in a trench 25 kilometres south of Grozny
Russian forces have been unable to quell the rebellion
The Russian Government and Chechen separatists have held their first official talks on a peace settlement in Chechnya since Moscow launched a second war there in 1999.

A leading representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov met a senior Kremlin representative, Viktor Kazantsev, in Moscow to discuss conditions for ending the fighting.

Despite our suspicions, we consented to the talks so that we can put an end to the troubles of the Chechen people

Chechen representative Akhmed Zakayev
Akhmed Zakayev said he had been invited by Russian President Vladimir Putin to open a dialogue after the terror attacks in New York and Washington in September.

Chechen separatists won de facto independence after a 1994-96 war that ended with a Russian withdrawal, but Moscow sent troops back into the breakaway republic in October 1999. The protracted guerrilla war has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

'Cordial and constructive'

An aide to Mr Kazantsev said the talks lasted for two hours and were held in a "cordial and constructive atmosphere".

A woman views the rubble in Grozny
Grozny has been devastated by the fighting
Interfax news agency said the meeting took place at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 airport.

Mr Zakayev later returned to Istanbul.

"This is an attempt to establish the framework for future negotiations," Maskhadov aide Mairbek Vachagayev told Echo Moscow radio.

"They will not be discussing any specific disarmament issues."

Fighting continues

The two representatives had spoken by telephone several times since Mr Putin's offer of talks in late September, but this was their first face-to-face meeting.

Mr Zakayev said the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Turkey, Besim Tibuk, had played an "active role" in facilitating the meeting, and that Mr Tibuk accompanied him on the special flight to Moscow.

Mr Kazantsev, a former top general in the Chechnya campaign, had demanded that the rebels - who are estimated to number anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 - lay down their arms before any peace talks could begin.

But the Chechen separatists dismissed his offer.

Fighting continued throughout the republic on Sunday even as the prospect of talks emerged.

Vladimir Mikheyev, political commentator
"Aslan Maskhadov... is still on the most wanted list by the Russian Home Office"
See also:

26 Sep 01 | Europe
Chechen leader 'agrees to talks'
28 Sep 01 | Europe
Analysis: New rules in Chechnya
06 Sep 01 | Europe
Chechnya's decade of disaster
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