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Siege Deepens Rift With West in Russia

U.S., Europe Said to Harbor Chechens

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page A18

MOSCOW, Sept. 9 -- Last week's attack on a Russian school has driven new wedges between Russia and the West in the fight against terrorism, as Moscow continues to accuse the United States and European countries of coddling Chechen separatists.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the United States and Britain on Thursday for granting asylum to Chechen opposition figures and told other countries to stay out of Russia's fight with rebels in the breakaway republic. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov reiterated that Russia might launch strikes against terrorist bases in other countries.

The statements came in a sixth day of escalating rhetoric, reflecting long-standing resentment of criticism from the West concerning Russia's handling of the war that has raged in Chechnya on and off for 10 years. That bitterness had largely been suppressed in recent years as Russia worked to improve relations with the West. But the terror strike in the southern town of Beslan last week appears to have unleashed frustrations.

"For some period of time it was hidden," said Alexander Pikayev, an analyst at the Committee of Scientists for Global Security, a private group. "Neither side wanted to expose that, to proliferate it into the public domain. But now, after Beslan, it becomes clear there are quite significant nuances in approach."

Pikayev said officials were taking their cues from President Vladimir Putin, who, during a late-night meeting with visiting scholars and journalists on Monday, expressed irritation with the West, which he accused of sympathizing with Chechen guerrillas. "Probably this overreaction by the Russian side might be explained by emotions," he said.

But he added that the tough talk also "reflects a new vulnerability of Mr. Putin" and may be part of a more concerted "attempt to divert public attention from the failure of Russian special services and the administration" to prevent the Beslan attack.

Putin tried to reassure the public Thursday by setting up new operational command groups in the North Caucasus region around Chechnya to better coordinate law enforcement and security agencies in fighting terrorism. The Kremlin-controlled State Duma, or lower house of parliament, also began moving to consider legislation that would toughen airline security, immigration and other policies.

But criticism of the government's fight against terrorism continued to mount. The Motherland party, a nationalist political organization created last year with behind-the-scenes support from the Kremlin, moved Thursday to have the lower house of parliament hold a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and the cabinet.

The Beslan attack was the latest in a series of terror strikes that have killed more than 1,000 people in Russia in the last two years.

Aware of the raw nerves in Moscow, officials in the United States and Western Europe have generally tried to avoid inflaming the situation, but even mild statements have triggered angry responses.

The rift opened last weekend after Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, whose government holds the rotating European Union presidency, was quoted as saying it was "very difficult to judge from a distance" whether Russian authorities handled the school siege correctly.

Lavrov called that "blasphemy," and the Dutch ambassador to Moscow was summoned to the Foreign Ministry. Bot explained that he had been misunderstood. Putin, though, expanded on the complaints in the Monday night meeting, saying that the West was trying to push him to negotiate with "child killers" no better than Osama bin Laden.

Vice President Cheney has described U.S. support for the Russians following the attack, noting that President Bush offered condolences to Putin by telephone and that the governments were investigating al Qaeda links. "The Russians think there are significant ties" to al Qaeda, Cheney said in Cincinnati. "There may be some links there, but we don't have specific details yet."

But the Kremlin took umbrage with a statement by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Tuesday that did not rule out further U.S. talks with Chechen political figures, long a sensitive issue for Moscow. On Wednesday, Boucher reemphasized American outrage at the school seizure.

"Our basic views haven't changed," he said, referring to the U.S. policy of urging Russia to find a political solution to the Chechen conflict. "But we're not dealing with that here. We're dealing with a terrorist attack, a horrible terrorist attack on school children. And there's no question of political aspects of this."

That was not enough to satisfy Moscow. Lavrov said Russia would not tolerate interference in the Chechnya conflict. "I would advise them not to hinder Russia from settling its internal affairs," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow after meeting with New York's former mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was visiting the city to offer condolences.

Lavrov also criticized the United States and Britain for harboring people Russia considers to be Chechen terrorists linked to rebel commander Aslan Maskhadov, whom it blames for the Beslan strike. Maskhadov has denied responsibility. Britain has granted asylum to Akhmad Zakayev, and the United States has given the same status to Ilyas Akhmadov. Both men were top officials in Maskhadov's government.

"Those who provide shelter to terrorists are directly responsible for the tragedy of the Chechen people," Lavrov said.

Staff writer Lisa Rein in Washington contributed to this report.


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