Chechen Rebel Chief Urges Peace Talks

A Chechen rebel leader told a Russian newspaper that a unilateral cease-fire he announced should help lead to peace talks with the Kremlin, and an official said Monday the truce had been holding since the start of February.

Last week, rebel Web site carried statements by former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov (search) and warlord Shamil Basayev (search) ordering a halt to all offensive actions in February in Chechnya (search) and bordering areas as "a display of good will."

Maskhadov, who was president of Chechnya during its de-facto independence in the late 1990s, said in an interview published Monday that he hoped for an "adequate reaction" from the Russian authorities. He added that he had named a spokesman abroad, Umar Khambiyev, to head a delegation for talks with Moscow.

"If our Kremlin opponents display sober reason, the war will end at the negotiating table," Maskhadov told the business daily Kommersant. "If not, bloodshed will likely continue for a long time, but we will surrender moral responsibility for continuing this madness."

Liliya Tengiyeva, a spokeswoman for Chechnya's Interior Ministry, said rebels appeared to be observing the cease-fire.

"During the last week, there have been no serious attacks, raids or terror attacks on the territory of the republic," Tengiyeva said in a telephone interview. "I wouldn't categorically say that these are the consequences of the moratorium, because such a lull is typical for the winter. Maybe it's just a coincidence but maybe not."

Federal officials have dismissed the calls as a bluff or publicity stunt, but daily reports issued by Russia's headquarters for the campaign against militants in Chechnya and nearby regions also appeared to indicate no rebel attacks had taken place in recent days.

In the newspaper interview, Maskhadov again sought to distance himself from Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including the September school hostage-taking in which more than 330 people were killed. He said he would try to prevent Basayev from carrying out new attacks against civilians, and he repeated his position that Basayev should face an international tribunal.

"If Basayev obeyed my cease-fire order, I should think that I have succeeded in averting many terror attacks," he told Kommersant.

The rebel Web site had said Basayev ordered all rebels under his command to halt attacks until Feb. 22 — the day before the anniversary of Stalin-era mass deportation of Chechens to Central Asia. Feb. 23 is also the day Russians honor the nation's armed forces.

Some Russian media speculated that Maskhadov's cease-fire call was tied to the alleged abduction of his relatives by the Chechen presidential security service. Representatives of the Memorial human rights center said Monday that one relative who was abducted, Movladi Aguyev, was found in the custody of federal forces in Chechnya.

Memorial also said some 1,000 civilians had disappeared in Chechnya in the past five years — during the second war — after being detained. It registered 396 abductions in Chechnya in 2004, including those of 24 people who were later found dead with signs of torture and a violent death, and 495 abductions — including 52 whose bodies were found — the previous year.

Abductions are a major problem in Chechnya, with civilians and rights groups blaming rebels and pro-Russian Chechen law enforcement as well as Russian forces who detain men in daily security sweeps.

President Vladimir Putin (search) has rejected calls from abroad for peace talks, saying the rebels are international terrorists who must be eliminated. Alu Alkhanov, Chechnya's Moscow-backed president also ruled out any talks with Maskhadov.

The Kremlin sent troops into Chechnya in 1994 in a bid to crush its separatist leadership, but they withdrew after a devastating 20-month war that left the southern Russian region de facto independent. Russian forces returned in 1999 following a rebel incursion into a neighboring province and apartment building explosions blamed on rebels.