Russian Moms Offer to Mediate Peace Talks

A group of Russian mothers, desperate for peace in Chechnya (search), told rebels in the breakaway region Wednesday they were ready to mediate peace between the government and militants fighting a decade-long battle for independence.

"Soldiers' mothers turn to those of you who really wish well to the Chechen people with a proposal — to give peace a chance and begin talks on a peaceful settlement of the conflict," the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers (search) said in a statement.

"We are ready to go anyplace, meet with your authorized persons anywhere, if only to stop the deadly race," the statement said.

Valentina Melnikova (search), the union's chairwoman, said the mothers had appealed to the rebel side because Russian officials had repeatedly ruled out peace talks.

"Our authorities — be it the president or various other politicians — have said time and again that all Chechens are terrorists and that we won't negotiate with anyone," Melnikova told The Associated Press.

Chechen rebels have reportedly claimed responsibility for the latest series of devastating terrorist acts that killed more than 430 people. Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) has staunchly refused to negotiate with terrorists.

On Thursday, NATO defense ministers meet their Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov in Romania to discuss closer cooperation in fighting terrorism. Ivanov on Wednesday met with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Melnikova said that the union does not currently have any direct contacts with Chechen rebels and the appeal will be communicated to them through the mass media.

"We want to give this a try. If it works out and there is a response, we will offer our services as a mediator interested in the issue, but not connected to either side," Melnikova said.

In the statement, the mothers pledged to make every effort to involve Chechen and Russian officials, rights groups and prominent public figures in the negotiating process.

The Russians fought an unsuccessful 1994-96 war against separatists that left the region de facto independent. Russian forces have been bogged down in Chechnya since 1999, when they returned after rebel raids on a neighboring Russian region.

The Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers estimates that more than 12,000 soldiers have been killed or died from injuries and suicides during the second war alone, Melnikova said.

Also Wednesday, a prominent Russian human rights group said 278 people have been abducted in Chechnya this year, Interfax news agency reported. Interfax quoted Memorial spokesman Dmitry Grushin as saying 106 of the abductees have been freed, 20 have been found dead and 122 were still missing.