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Chechen Separatist Leader Says He's In Poland, Dismisses Interpol Arrest Threat

  • RFE/RL

Akhmed Zakayev

Akhmed Zakayev

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, exiled Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev has confirmed that he is in Poland to attend the World Chechen Congress, despite plans by Polish police to arrest him.

"I am already here [in Poland]. I'm here absolutely legally and I'm not going to hide from the authorities of the country where I have come completely legally, with a visa," Zakayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.

"I am prepared to answer any questions and I have communicated that to the Polish prosecutor's office through my lawyer."

Polish police have said they will arrest Zakayev, citing an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol at Russia's request. Polish police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said, "It is the obligation of any country to detain such a person whenever he or she appears on the soil of that country."

Moscow considers Zakayev a terrorist but Britain granted him political asylum in 2003.

Exile Gathering

The World Chechen Congress in Warsaw brings together Chechen exiles who are seeking independence for their North Caucasus province, which is part of Russia. Chechen exiles oppose Moscow's hand-picked leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Zakayev told RFE/RL that this is the first time he has been targeted for arrest in Poland*.

"I have been in Poland several times. Just this year I have been three or four times and there has been no reaction," he said, adding that his appearance at the gathering is necessary to bring Chechnya back to the world's attention.

"It is not about Zakayev, but about what I'm going to say and what we're going to talk about, and that is Chechnya," he said. "Chechnya is a closed subject for the outside world today."

Zakayev has expressed his desire to return to Russia to pursue Chechen independence through peaceful means, but said Moscow refuses to entertain any discussion.

"Of course, those who have forbidden any discussion of this problem in international institutions -- namely Russia and the Russian leadership -- don't like the fact that Chechens and their friends will gather in Poland, a member of the European Union, to talk about the Chechen problem and the continuing armed conflict between Russia and Chechnya," he said.

Watching 'With Concern'

Poland's Foreign Ministry said it would be monitoring the congress "closely and with concern," as participants are expected to reaffirm demands for an independent Chechnya. The call that will no doubt anger Russia just as Warsaw and Moscow are trying to mend their strained relations.

The Russian embassy in Warsaw said this week that President Dmitry Medvedev will visit Poland later this year.

Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said the congress has been partially organized by representatives of "the Chechen republic of Ichkeria," which he noted has not been recognized by Poland or any other country.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin has warned European governments that "representatives of the so-called Republic of Ichkeria in Europe are trying to organize events which do not help normalization of the situation in the North Caucasus and are aimed at constantly stirring [up] trouble."

Moscow fought two wars against Chechen separatists and eventually suppressed the insurgency by allowing rebels from a clan that switched its loyalty to Russia to take over the local government.

But the Chechen insurgency is on the rise again, fuelled by poverty and corruption.

Politicians in Europe and the United States have condemned violence by Chechen separatists but many are sympathetic to their independence cause. There has also been strong criticism of Moscow's harsh tactics in dealing with separatists.

* CORRECTED: This story originally suggested Zakayev said it was the first time he'd been targeted for arrest abroad. In fact, he appeared to be pointing out that he'd been to Poland on several occasions and never arrested.

written by Heather Maher with material from RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service and agencies