NEW YORK – Moscow has few options left for a negotiated end to the violence in Chechnya (search), a top adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) said on the eve of the 10-year anniversary of Russia's advance into the breakaway republic.
Aslambek Aslakhanov said a decade of war with Russia (search) and in-fighting among Chechen clans has stripped rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, the republic's former president, of any real power.
Speaking at Columbia University on Thursday, Aslakhanov said Russia should focus on talks with lower-level rebel commanders who have not participated in terrorist acts.
"Maskhadov is just a banner" the rebel groups rally around, he said. "Without him, they are only a group of bandits, but he's weak as a president."
His comments reflect official Kremlin policy of refusing negotiations with Maskhadov since the war in Chechnya flared for a second time in 1999, after a period of de facto independence after the first war.
That conflict began Dec. 11, 1994, when Moscow deployed troops to depose a rebellious provincial president and ended in a negotiated withdrawal of Russian troops after rebels recaptured the Chechen capital, Grozny, in 1996.
Moscow should focus now on reconstruction and creating jobs in the devastated region, once a rich province that both produced oil and was a transit hub for pipelines from the Caspian Sea, Aslakhanov said.
He said those oil riches helped spawn the conflict 10 years ago. The region's first rebellious president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, siphoned off millions and prompted the Russian invasion, Aslakhanov said.
"I called it a trade war between Chechnya and the Kremlin," Aslakhanov said.
"This is a very sensitive topic for me. Part of the fault lies with the Chechen people, who allowed Dudayev and those like him to come to power," he said. "But it was the children of the poor, of those who were tricked, of those who were lied to, it's their bodies that fill the cemeteries."
Aslakhanov, on a weeklong trip to Great Britain and the United States to meet with anti-terrorism officials, said both countries have offered assistance in tracing foreign aid provided to the Muslim insurgency in Chechnya, chiefly from Middle Eastern countries.
Russian authorities are investigating whether a Turkish citizen helped hostage takers in September's deadly school seizure in Beslan in southern Russia, said Yevgeny Khailov, deputy director of anti-terrorism at the Russian Federal Security Service. He said it was unclear whether the man was an ethnic Kurd or Turkish.
A Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The United States is assisting Russian authorities in determining the identity of three hostage-takers suspected of being from the Middle East, Khailov said. The two countries' intelligence agencies are exchanging "operational data" on the men, who were killed in the fighting that ended the siege, he said.
The 9/11 Commission has offered assistance in probing the three-day Beslan ordeal, which ended with explosions and gunfire and left more than 338 people dead, almost half of them children, and killed 31 of the 32 attackers.
Aslakhanov, a former member of the Russian parliament from Chechnya who is considered the Kremlin's moderate voice on the war, planned to with commission members in Washington on Friday.