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Russia: Maskhadov Says Moscow To Blame For Hostage Crisis

Separatist Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has condemned the recent Moscow hostage taking by Chechen militants, but he says the tragedy is a direct consequence of Russia's war in Chechnya. He says a group of desperate Chechens was pushed to extreme actions by the war. In a tape obtained yesterday by RFE/RL, Maskhadov insists the only way out of the crisis is unconditional negotiations.

Prague, 29 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The president of the separatist Chechen leadership, Aslan Maskhadov, says he condemns the recent hostage taking in a Moscow theater, but he says Russia's war in Chechnya is to blame for the tragedy.

Speaking on a tape received yesterday by RFE/RL, Maskhadov said: "We condemn and have always condemned similar [terrorist] actions, and [we] find no justification for them. We have always tried to carry honorably the banner of [our] national liberation movement."

It's not clear when the tape was recorded, but it appears to have been made sometime shortly after the hostage crisis was resolved on 26 October.

Maskhadov said the Russian government, not ordinary people in Chechnya or Russia, was guilty for the war. He said the four-year war had pushed some Chechen groups to extreme actions, such as taking hostages.

For its part, Russia justifies the war in Chechnya as both a legitimate effort to preserve its territory and as a struggle against "international terrorism."

Maskhadov was democratically elected as president of the Chechen Republic in 1997 in a vote sanctioned by the Russian government. Moscow, however, no longer recognizes Maskhadov's authority and has installed a rival Chechen administration.

On the tape, Maskhadov said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a mistake in using force to end the three-day hostage crisis, killing innocent civilians in the process.

In a predawn raid, Russian special forces stormed the theater after first using gas to render the hostage takers unconscious. Many hundreds of hostages were saved, but nearly 120 of them died from the effects of the gas.

Yesterday, Putin said he would give broader powers to the military to deal with what he called "suspected terrorists." "Russia will respond with measures appropriate to the threats wherever there are terrorists, organizations of these criminals or their ideological or financial sponsors," Putin said.

Maskhadov denied on the tape that he is a terrorist. He said, rather, that he is a professional military officer and that his job is planning military operations, not kidnappings. He said he has recently achieved some successes, notably uniting the Chechen forces under one command.

Maskhadov said his forces will continue fighting the Russian Army in Chechnya. "We will continue the national liberation struggle, but not using terrorist methods. We will plan and implement military operations. We will surely liberate our land from those butchers and killers, and nobody will be able to forbid us from doing so, except for Allah," Maskhadov said.

Maskhadov said he believes the only way out is through negotiations. "There is one intelligent, credible path [to peace]. That is to sit at the negotiating table. Any other way leads to death, blood, [and] hostages," Maskhadov said.

That call for negotiations was voiced yesterday during the Chechen World Congress in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

A senior envoy of the separatist president, Ahmed Zakaev, speaking yesterday, called for unconditional talks between the Chechen leaders and Russian government officials. "We can only solve [the crisis] politically. President Maskhadov, as before, is ready without any preconditions to sit at the negotiating table. It is up to the Russian leadership," Zakaev said.

The former chairman of the Lithuanian parliament, Vytautas Landsbergis, who participated in the congress, told a Lithuanian daily that "the biggest priority is peace, which should push away the desire for the victory."