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Friday, 31 January, 2003, 16:22 GMT
Chechen extradition hearing date set
Akhmed Zakayev and Vanessa Redgrave
Zakayev is supported by actress Vanessa Redgrave

The UK Government has authorised the start of extradition proceedings against the Chechen president's special envoy, Akhmed Zakayev.

Mr Zakayev, 43, is a high-profile figure in the Chechen struggle for independence from Moscow - a conflict which Russia sees as its own war against terrorism.

The Russian authorities requested Mr Zakayev's extradition when he arrived in Britain in December, following the failure of a similar request to Denmark.

Moscow has welcomed the authorisation of extradition proceedings but the decision has been strongly criticised by Mr Zakayev's supporters.

Russian tanks in Chechnya
Russian forces poured back into Chechnya in 1999
After a brief hearing on Friday in a London court, 14 February was set as the date for the start of the extradition proceedings against Mr Zakayev.

The process could take some months.

Russia accuses Mr Zakayev of responsibility for the murder of 300 Russian security personnel during the first military campaign in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996.

Mr Zakayev acknowledges that he fought against the Russians in the campaign but says that he was merely defending himself and his people.

He also maintains that a priest whom he is accused of murdering is alive and well and living in Moscow.

Celebrity support

Mr Zakayev's supporters, led by the actress Vanessa Redgrave, claim that Britain should follow the example of its fellow EU state Denmark, and throw out the case.

Some see a political motive behind Moscow's pursuit of Mr Zakayev.

Earlier this week, the Russian presidential representative, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, went to Washington to persuade the United States to put Chechen rebel groups on its blacklist of terrorists.

If the US does this, it may well receive Russian backing for military action against Iraq.

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