Putin: Russia Ready to Aid Afghan Opposition Forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged Monday to increase Moscow's support of Afghan opposition forces by providing weapons and military equipment.

During a nationally televised speech, the Russian leader said he would reach out to the government-in-exile of President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

"We are broadening cooperation with the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan headed by Mr. Rabbani and will render additional aid to its armed forces in the form of the supply of weapons and military equipment," Putin said.

The Russians already have been assisting the Afghan opposition, which controls about 5 percent of the territory of Afghanistan.

Putin said that Russia was ready to open its airspace for humanitarian aid in case of an attack on Afghanistan and said that Central Asian countries may open their airfields to the United States.

According to the Russian leader, Moscow would provide active cooperation with international anti-terrorism efforts by further sharing intelligence on the infrastructure of international terrorist groups and their bases.

Putin also called for greater reliance on international organizations such as the United Nations and its Security Council in determining what steps to take against international terrorism.

The Russian leader said his position was shared by his country's allies in Central Asia, nations that are near Afghanistan and which "do not rule" out providing their air bases in the fight against terrorism.

"Other, deeper forms of cooperation between Russia and participants in the anti-terrorist operation are possible. The depth and character of this cooperation will directly depend on our relations with these countries and on mutual understanding," Putin said.

He made the remarks in a television address following a meeting with Russian parliamentary leaders following the devastating attacks in the United States.

"I decided I should not make the final decision before meeting you and consulting you on this issue, which is very important for Russia's place in the world now and in the future," Putin told about two dozen party leaders from both houses of the Russian parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council, who were gathered around a huge round table in the Kremlin.

Last week, the Duma passed a resolution urging strong international action against terror but saying any military operation should proceed cautiously.

Putin had remained noncommittal in public about Russia's strategy on possible U.S. strikes on Afghanistan. Russia's position is crucial, especially if an operation is staged from former Soviet states in Central Asia.

Putin had said Russia is ready for wide cooperation with the United States but has indicated Russia would not offer troops for any U.S. military action and would not welcome any unilateral decisions by the United States.

The Russian president, a deliberate leader and consensus-builder, held a marathon meeting with his top security, defense and intelligence chiefs and spoke by telephone with President Bush on Saturday. Putin then spoke with the presidents of all five Central Asian nations on Sunday.

Russia and the Central Asian states fear a refugee flood or spillover violence from U.S. strikes on Afghanistan could further rock the restive region and drain its scarce finances.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.