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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 March, 2003, 11:40 GMT
Chechnya 'backs new constitution'
Soldiers queuing to vote
Russian soldiers were also entitled to vote
Russian officials say residents of Chechnya have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new constitution anchoring the republic in the Russian federation.

With nearly half the vote counted from Sunday's referendum, 96% of voters were said to have approved the new draft constitution.

"The last serious problem in relation to Russia's territorial integrity has been resolved," said President Vladimir Putin.

Human rights organisation have questioned the legitimacy of a vote held in conditions of war.

The Chechen people has made its choice in favour of peace
Russian President Vladimir Putin
They appealed in vain to the Russian authorities to establish a ceasefire first.

Chechen separatist forces drove Russian troops out of the republic in a 1994-96 war.

The federal army returned in 1999 after a Chechen-backed insurgency in neighbouring Dagestan and a series of apartment-block bombings in Russian cities, widely blamed on Chechen militants.

Russian officials have long sought to portray the continuing bloodshed in Chechnya not as a war, but as a small-scale operation against dwindling group of guerrillas.

Autonomy

"From a 'zone of anti-terrorist operations', the republic has been turned into a 'full part of the Russian Federation'" wrote the Izvestiya newspaper on Monday in a sceptical article on the result.

Officials said turnout was 79%.

The referendum is a bluff - nobody believes in it
Giri Gudiev
Chechen farmer
Voters were said to have backed laws on parliamentary and presidential elections as well as the draft constitution.

Russia hopes that the elections will provide Chechnya with credible local authorities to replace the puppet government established by Moscow.

It then aims to negotiate a deal on autonomy with the new authorities.

Moscow refuses to negotiate with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president in 1997.

"The Chechen people has made its choice in favour of peace," said Mr Putin.

Petition

"All who have not laid down their arms so far are struggling from this moment not only for false ideals, but are directly struggling against their people."

The pro-separatist Kavkaz Center news agency said rebels armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers destroyed a polling station in Alkhan-Kala village, near the capital, Grozny.

Mr Putin was swept to power three years ago on his promise to crush Chechen rebels.

He faces re-election in March.

Thirty non-governmental organisations petitioned Mr Putin to cancel the referendum.

They claimed it was conceived by a group of pro-Moscow bureaucrats who did not represent anybody, and warned that its results would not be recognised by most Chechens.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Steven Eke
"There were critics who condemned holding the referendum in conditions of on-going conflict"



SEE ALSO:
Call to scrap Chechnya poll
13 Mar 03 |  Europe
Q&A: The Chechen conflict
29 Oct 02 |  Europe
Profile: Chechnya
21 Jan 03 |  Country profiles


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