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Russia: Media Divided On U.S.-Led Strikes

In Russia, only a handful of newspapers were able to rush news of the nighttime launch of U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan onto their front pages. But many television networks and radio stations last night canceled their regular programming to cover the strikes, which come in response to last month's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu gauges Russian media reaction to the strikes against Afghanistan.

Moscow, 8 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Russia, the nighttime (2030 Moscow time, 1830 Prague time) launch of the U.S.-led strikes against targets in Afghanistan left few newspapers able to rush the story onto their front pages for Monday morning.

Among those that did was the "Vedomosti" business daily, which is co-owned by the U.S.-based "Wall Street Journal." Its front-page headline read: "Now the Taliban are going to pay." The paper applauded the U.S. and British strikes, saying they were targeting the terrorist-supporting Taliban regime and not the Afghan people.

The business daily "Kommersant" wrote that the attack may have taken the Taliban by surprise. The ruling militia, the paper wrote, "were doing all they could to please the U.S." -- including promising the release of British journalist Yvonne Ridley, who was arrested last month in Afghanistan for illegally entering the country.

Russian television networks and radio stations canceled their regular Sunday-night programming to cover the events. The country's major television networks broadcast images taken directly from the international news network CNN.

Yevgeny Kiselev, the host of a news program on TV-6 -- which employs many of the journalists who left the private NTV network after its takeover by the state-controlled Gazprom gas monopoly -- was critical of yesterday's strikes. Kiselev commented ironically that the launch of the campaign was a birthday present from U.S. President George W. Bush to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who yesterday celebrated his 49th birthday. The news program also said the military campaign could result in heavy civilian casualties.

The state-run ORT news network today broadcast televised remarks by the Russian president. Putin, addressing a meeting of cabinet ministers and security chiefs, said terrorists "miscalculated" when they carried out the 11 September attacks:

"I do not doubt that this [strike against Afghanistan] was expected by the terrorists themselves. They knew perfectly well what they were doing, they knew what they were getting into, and they counted on the possibility that things would go this way. Moreover, they are provoking the leadership of the leading countries in the world into such a turn of events. At the same time, I think that this time they miscalculated."

Putin, who said he was informed of the strikes ahead of time by Bush, went on to ally himself firmly with the international coalition against terrorism:

"The terrorists were let down by their arrogance and self-confidence. They did not expect the pulling together of the international community to face the international threat. I would very much like this pulling together to develop in the best way and that the terrorists will feel the results of the joint efforts of the international community in the fight against terrorism." Putin's strong show of support came after the release of an ambiguous statement from Russia's Foreign Ministry, which said top diplomats were still working out the country's "position" on the air strikes.

The president's silence earned sharp criticism from some commentators. Before Putin's remarks were aired today, Ekho Moskvy radio commentator Andrei Cherkisov said: "We understand that yesterday President Putin was busy with his birthday party, but such an important event deserved a quick comment from the Russian side." Ekho Moskvy yesterday interviewed Dmitry Rogozin, the chairman of the State Duma committee for international affairs.

Rogozin said the world was waiting for the strikes to be launched against terrorist bases in Afghanistan. He said the most important issue was to see whether the U.S.-led coalition would address terrorism only in Afghanistan or extend its range to include other countries believed to harbor terrorist organizations.

Rogozin added that Russia would not participate in the military operation in Afghanistan but that it would back the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance opposition. He said: "According to our experience, only Afghans can solve their internal problems. For that reason, we decided to beef up military aid to [Northern Alliance] forces that are able to lead a military operation against the Taliban.

Rogozin also drew a comparison between the U.S.-led strikes and Russia's ongoing conflict in breakaway Chechnya, saying Chechen fighters have long been linked to bin Laden.

In his remarks today, Putin also addressed the Chechen conflict, saying the number of people killed in the U.S. attacks was "more than twice the amount of losses the Russian Federation has suffered in all of its ground operations against the terrorists in Chechnya since 1999."