Prime Minister Vladimir Putin today all but rejected calls for negotiations with Chechnya in response to appeals from Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov as Russian artillery and bombs continued to rain down on the separatist region.
Putin, responding to Maskhadov's weekend appeals for peace talks, told reporters that Chechnya must first "extradite" guerrilla commander Shamil Basayev, whom Russia has called an "international terrorist."
Maskhadov had offered a peace plan under which he promised to crack down on warlords in the breakaway region after Russian troops pull out, and he suggested reviving negotiations on a Russian-Chechen peace accord.
"I view it in a positive light, but I would change the priorities," Putin said in response to Maskhadov's proposal, insisting Basayev must be turned over first. "Give us the men whose hands and arms are stained with blood and we will be prepared for full-scale talks."
Basayev, a leading Chechen commander in the 1994-96 war against Russia, led an August incursion into neighboring Dagestan, which reignited the conflict with Russia. Russians have accused him and others of organizing apartment bombings last month that killed nearly 300 people in Moscow and other cities.
Putin's demand for Basayev is certain to be rejected. Basayev is one of several powerful Chechen warlords who have eclipsed the weakened Maskhadov, and Basayev was recently named a top military commander in the besieged Chechen government. Moreover, even before the latest conflict, plans for a meeting between President Boris Yeltsin and Maskhadov drifted for months and never came to fruition.
"As far as Maskhadov goes," Putin said, "he is driving himself into a very complicated position." Referring to Basayev, Putin said Maskhadov "reestablished official relations with the people whom we consider to be international terrorists. How should we behave in these circumstances? He puts both himself and ourselves in a very difficult position."
Putin had often said before the latest hostilities that Chechnya's problems could not be solved by force. Now, Russia has put 50,000 armed men into a horseshoe-shaped cordon around most of the region and is engaged in sporadic combat with Chechen fighters while pummeling it daily with bombs and shells. Putin acknowledged today that "problems of a political nature can only be solved by political talks." He added, "I always used to say it."
Russian troops, located north of the Terek River inside Chechnya and in the neighboring regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia, continued to carry out airstrikes and fire artillery at Chechen targets. The Interfax news agency reported that long-range artillery was used to pound the village of Bamut southwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital. The Russians used mobile multiple-rocket launchers and also fired four medium-range surface-to-surface tactical missiles, Interfax said.
CAPTION: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insists that Chechnya must "extradite" guerrilla Shamil Basayev.