Washington, which last year accused Russia of using "overwhelming force" against civilians in Chechnya, appears to be changing tack. For the first time, the United States has designated some Chechen rebel groups as terrorists. As RFE/RL reports, the move could have wider implications.
Washington, 3 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a step that Moscow has been encouraging for more than a year, the U.S. State Department says it has designated three Chechen rebel groups as terrorist organizations with links to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a briefing on 28 February that the Chechen groups were directly involved in taking more than 800 hostages at a Moscow theater last October, which resulted in the deaths of 129 hostages, most by gas sprayed by Russian forces ending the siege.
Boucher told reporters, "In making this designation, the United States calls on all Chechen leaders to renounce terrorist acts and to cut any ties they may have to these terrorist groups and all who are affiliated with them."
The groups were listed as the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs, the Special-Purpose Islamic Regiment, and the Islamic International Brigade.
The designation means that no U.S. citizen can provide any financial or material support to the groups. Also, the groups' members are barred from entering the United States, and any U.S.-held assets they may have are automatically frozen.
U.S. officials also alleged extensive contacts and mutual support among the Chechen groups, the deposed Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, and bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network during the 1990s.
They are the first Chechen groups added to the list, highlighting the tougher line Washington has taken against the Chechen movement since Russia backed its war on terrorism after the 11 September 2001 attacks.
Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has threatened to veto any U.S.-backed resolution allowing the use of force to disarm Iraq. But U.S. officials stressed the designation was not part of an effort to win Russian backing on Iraq.
Boucher stressed that Washington still believes the conflict in Chechnya must be solved peacefully. "It remains our position that the broader conflict in Chechnya cannot be resolved militarily and requires a political solution. In this connection, we'd also underscore our strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, a partner in the war on terrorism," Boucher said.
But while Boucher added that Washington does not consider all Chechen fighters to be terrorists, the latest U.S. step concerns American advocates for peace in Chechnya.
Glen Howard is executive director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, a private group that seeks a peaceful settlement to the Chechen conflict. Howard told RFE/RL that, although U.S. officials insist there is no connection with their move and Washington's need to win Russian support on Iraq, he remains unconvinced. "This situation is going to do nothing more than exacerbate the plight of the humanitarian tragedy of Chechnya and the death warrant to kill another 10,000 Chechens," he said. "It further justifies Russia's being a full member of the war on terrorism in time for the United Nations debate on the Iraqi resolution."
Howard said that, although Washington still says it wants a political solution to the Chechen conflict, its latest move is likely to make it harder to achieve such a settlement. "There are some terrorist elements in Chechnya, and there are some elements that are very bad. No one disputes that. But the problem [is] that this is going to further paint all Chechens as being part [of], [or] affiliated with, terrorist organizations. And it's going to make it much more difficult for Russians in Moscow who are opposed to the war to step forward to promote a peaceful resolution to the war," Howard said.
He said that Russia is, in effect, now able to justify its Chechen campaign in part by pointing out that the United States supports its efforts.
At the briefing, Boucher also told reporters that Washington, with support from Russia, Britain, China, and Spain, is asking the United Nations to put the three Chechen groups on its own list of proscribed terrorist organizations.
To make the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, a group must be shown to have engaged in terrorist activities or to be planning future attacks that threaten U.S. citizens or interests.
The designation automatically expires after two years, but it may be extended by the secretary of state if terrorist activity continues.
U.S. officials said the designated groups may be affiliated with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basaev, who claimed responsibility for the Moscow hostage taking and who U.S. officials believe has received millions of dollars from Al-Qaeda.