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Russia: Official Plays Down Islamic Criticism Of Chechen War

A mission from the Organization of the Islamic Conference is in Russia to assess the needs of Chechen civilians. In Moscow, even before the group headed to the North Caucasus, the delegation's head called for a halt to the military campaign in Chechnya. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that Russian authorities are trying to play down the criticism.

Moscow, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At the Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) last month, Russia agreed to allow an OSCE mission to assess the situation in Chechnya. But when OSCE Chairman Knut Vollebaek showed up in Moscow he was rebuffed and told he could not visit the region until mid-December.

Yet when Iran two weeks ago proposed a mission of representatives of Muslim nations, the Russian cabinet quickly approved. A delegation from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the largest grouping of Muslim states, arrived in Moscow Monday (Dec. 6).

After initially voicing sympathy for Russia's efforts against terrorism, Iran has gradually increased its public concern about the effects of the war on Muslim civilians. And on Monday the OIC delegation's head, Iranian Foreign Minister Khamal Kharazzi, wasted no time in criticizing Russia's campaign as "disproportionate." Kharazzi called for an end to military operations with a general amnesty and the return of refugees. He said political negotiations are essential.

At a Foreign Ministry press briefing yesterday, however, Russian authorities said the OIC had not expressed criticism, but merely raised concerns. Asked by RFE/RL for Russia's reaction to the OIC call for political negotiations, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Rakhmanin side-stepped the question, and said the OIC actually supports Russia's policy toward Chechnya.

"Our partners from the OIC delegation, and this was confirmed during their closing session with [Russian Foreign Minister Igor] Ivanov [on Monday] clearly recognize and hold by the position that Chechnya is Russia's domestic problem and that Chechnya belongs to the Russian Federation. At the same time, we paid attention to the concerns expressed by our OIC colleagues, which touch upon the humanitarian consequences of the anti-terrorist operation [in Chechnya]."

Rakhmanin said Russia is open to humanitarian help but rejects any offer of outside mediation as "premature." Iran has offered 40 tons a week of humanitarian aid for the refugees.

The Emergency Situations Ministry says the Russian government has opened two airports in the North Caucasus for humanitarian flights, one in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia; and one in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Moscow had closed local airports to international flights last month to prevent alleged smuggling of arms and mercenaries.

Aleksei Malashenko is a specialist on Islam with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He told RFE/RL that Russia and Islamic states have a mutual interest in maintaining good ties. He says Russia accepted the OIC's request to visit Chechnya and the surrounding region as a gesture, to reassure Islamic countries that Russia's war is only against terrorists, not against Muslims.

Malashenko says the OIC's criticism is mild enough to be acceptable to Russia. "[Russia] understands very well that its geopolitical future depends a lot on [its relations with Muslim countries]. And the Islamic countries themselves are maintaining respectful relations with Russia. [The OIC visit and these factors], all of this, plays into Russia's hands and breaks through the wall of condemnation that is surrounding Russia's position regarding Chechnya."

Malashenko says Muslim states have failed to give the Chechens any official support. Most of them, he says, fear trouble with separatist groups or Islamic militants of their own. Other analysts have pointed out that many Muslim countries -- including Iran and Saudi Arabia -- feel little religious solidarity with Chechnya because the Chechens practice a form of Sufism that is alien to them.

In addition to the Iranian foreign minister, the OIC delegation includes the foreign ministers of Qatar, Morocco, and Burkina Faso. The ministers began a tour of the North Caucasus today. According to Interfax they're planning to visit Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Ingushetia as well as Chechnya. In Gudermes they are expected to meet with the Chechen mufti, Akhmed Khadzhi Kadyrov. And in Ingushetia they are scheduled to meet Ingush President Ruslan Aushev.

The Iranian Embassy in Moscow told RFE/RL that part of these plans have changed, but he gave no details.