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Russia: U.S. Urges Chechen Settlement, Sympathizes In School Siege

In the wake of the Beslan hostage tragedy, President Vladimir Putin has said Russia will increase efforts to extradite people with suspected ties to terrorism. At the top of the Foreign Ministry's extradition wish list is Ilyas Akhmadov, a former official in the separatist Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov, who has been granted asylum in the United States. Russia has criticized the U.S. stance on Akhmadov and other Chechen separatists. But U.S. officials this week made efforts to demonstrate their solidarity with Russia on the issue of Beslan, pledging aid to the victims and seeking to downplay its ties with Chechen officials.

Washington, 8 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that the United States has not changed its stand on Russia's conflict with separatist Chechens.

Boucher told reporters that U.S. continues to believe a political solution is the only way to end the bloodshed of Russia's five-year war in the breakaway republic.

The remarks came as Putin lashed out at U.S. and British ties with Chechen separatists -- including Akhmadov and Maskhadov aide Akhmed Zakaev, who has been granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

Boucher stressed the United States does not meet with people who are involved in terrorism.

But he added, "We do have a policy that says we will meet with political leaders who have different points of view," and said Washington was willing to meet again with moderate Chechen separatists despite opposition from Moscow.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to downplay U.S. ties with Chechen separatists, emphasizing instead America's sympathy for the victims of Beslan.

"I think President Putin was making reference to occasional visits -- not one recently but some time ago -- of Chechen personalities to staff members in the State Department as part of our way of keeping informed about the situation in the region," Powell said. "Where we are now absolutely united, though, is in condemning this horrible, horrible action that took place in this small town."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also sought to express his solidarity with grieving Russians and he drew a parallel between concerns about Islamic militant groups opposing both his country and Russia:

"What we saw last week was a very gripping, vivid example of the extremes to which terrorists will go and not only willing to go but do in fact go and are going," Rumsfeld said. "They are doing these things today. This is a global struggle between extremists and people who want to be left alone to live free lives and free systems."

But Rumsfeld was careful to separate Russia's recent string of violent events with America's own war on terror. He had seen no evidence that Al-Qaeda was in any way involved in the Beslan siege.

Other U.S. officials noted there were lessons the United States can draw from the Beslan tragedy.

Tom Ridge, secretary of homeland security, said safety has long been an issue in schools in the United States, where gun violence was an issue even before 11 September 2001.

But Ridge said security can be further improved by studying what happened at Beslan: "From the lessons learned overseas, whether it's relative to a school, hospital, anything else, if we can apply [the lessons] to making America more secure, we will. That's where the intelligence-sharing and information-sharing among our allies has not only given us more information about who the terrorists are, where they are and how they operate. Unfortunately, we learned from the tragedy associated with a lot of these events that have occurred around the world over the past three years as well."

There have been some accusations that Russian officials did not respond properly to the Beslan siege. Ridge was asked which U.S. agency would be in charge if militants seized an American school. He said the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probably would lead the response, coordinating the efforts of local and federal officials.

Despite the attention being focused on special investigators and expensive forensic equipment, Ridge said the central player in these cases just might be humble local police officers.

The secretary said their familiarity with the neighborhoods they patrol could give them the edge over more sophisticated law enforcement agents in combating and even preventing attacks: "All of us within [the Department of] Homeland Security appreciate the talents, the experience and the intuition of the local police. I'm absolutely convinced that one of these days, we will have a significant incident, or incidents, prevented because somebody on patrol -- a man or woman wearing blue [in uniform] -- who's been given enough information, combined with their own instincts and experience, to do something to disrupt the plot."