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Russia: Putin, Chirac, And Schroeder Hold Wide-Ranging Talks In Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin met today with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for an informal summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The leaders discussed the situation in Iraq and neighboring Iran, as well as energy cooperation and other issues. But as RFE/RL reports, the specter of terrorism dominated the talks.

31 August 2004 -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac both had terrorism on their minds Tuesday, as they met for talks in Sochi along with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Chirac reiterated France's determination to stand up to the kidnappers of two French journalists in Iraq, who are demanding that Paris revoke a controversial law banning the wearing of Islamic head scarves -- along with other overt religious symbols -- in state schools.

In his first extensive comments on last week's twin airplane crashes in Russia, Putin said the link between Al-Qaeda and Chechen separatists had once again been proven.

Investigators say the crashes, which killed 89 people, were almost certainly caused by explosives on board the airplanes. A militant Islamic group calling itself the Al-Islambouli Brigades of Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility on behalf of the Chechen cause. And suspicion is growing that two Chechen female suicide bombers -- one on each plane -- may have been responsible for carrying out the attacks.

Chechnya's separatist leadership has denied any responsibility, but Putin said that to him, the link is clear. "If a terrorist organization has assumed responsibility for [the blowing up of the planes], and it is linked to Al-Qaeda, this fact proves the link between certain forces operating in Chechnya and international terrorism," he said. "We have been fighting them and will continue to do so in the future."

Putin said the 29 August presidential election in Chechnya, in which Kremlin-backed candidate Alu Alkhanov swept to victory with 74 percent of the vote, shows that the overwhelming majority of people in the republic back Moscow's policies.

"If someone comes to vote, it's a fact. It means he or she wants to participate in the political life of the republic. The turnout was very high at the election in the Chechen Republic -- about 80 percent -- and an overwhelming majority of the voters cast their votes for one of the candidates, Mr. Alkhanov. It's also a fact," Putin said.

Although the U.S. State Department, among others, criticized the electoral process in Chechnya as far from free and fair, Putin said no observers on the ground had noted major violations. "The numerous observers, including those from Muslim, Arab countries and international organizations, did not find any serious violations in the course of the election campaign," he said. "I haven't really heard any serious person who observed the election speak of any serious violations that could have cast doubt on the outcome of this election."

On the issue of Iran, Putin found common ground with his two guests. The Russian president said Moscow is "categorically against" an enlargement of the club of global nuclear powers. But he said Russia, like its European colleagues, will continue to cooperate with Iran in civilian nuclear matters, while attempting to obtain further guarantees that Tehran is not pursuing any military nuclear program.

Russia is currently building Iran's first nuclear power plant in the southern city of Bushehr, despite protests from the United States and Israel.

Later today, the three leaders are expected to discuss environmental issues, trade, and economic cooperation between their countries and between Russia and the European Union.

Putin pledged this morning that Russia will continue to increase its oil exports in a bid to meet increasing global demand.

(compiled from agency reports)