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Russia: Both Reeling From Suicide Bomb Explosions, Moscow and Washington Differ Over Terrorism

Speaking ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Moscow today, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the recent suicide bombings in Chechnya and Saudi Arabia were closely linked. Washington is skeptical of Moscow's claim that its war in Chechnya is an "antiterrorist" operation. Russia, meanwhile, fiercely opposed the war in Iraq, which the White House also justified as a campaign against terrorism. With Powell trying to bridge the gap over Iraq ahead of a crucial United Nations Security Council vote, just how far apart are the two sides on the pivotal issue of terrorism? RFE/RL reports from Moscow.

Moscow, 14 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday the blast -- which was aimed at a government building and has so far killed at least 58 people -- was directly parallel to a similar attack a day earlier on foreigners living in Saudi Arabia.

"The handwriting is absolutely identical here and there," a stern Putin said of the attacks. "The consequences are absolutely comparable. Earlier, he said the blast in Chechnya was aimed at prolonging the war in the North Caucasus region.

"All actions of this sort are aimed at stopping the process of bringing about a political settlement to the situation in Chechnya. We cannot let this happen and we will not let this happen," the president said.

Another suicide bomb in Chechnya today killed at least seven people, according to Russia's TVS network.

Putin has from the start portrayed Moscow's Chechen campaign as part of the international effort to fight terrorism. His latest comments come as top-level diplomats make the rounds in Moscow; a meeting of NATO ambassadors took place yesterday ahead of a visit today by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson seemed to back Putin's position yesterday, saying, "The criminal killers who were responsible for the explosions in both countries have united the world in outrage."

But Moscow has a tougher negotiator in Powell. He is in Moscow to gain support for a new U.S.-backed resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would lift sanctions on Iraq and approve the role of the U.S.-led coalition in overseeing the Middle East country's postwar reconstruction.

Powell is meeting with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov during part of a multi-country tour to drum up support for Washington's policies in the Middle East.

He flew in from Saudi Arabia, where three suicide bombings killed at least 29 people on Monday.

U.S. officials said the attacks were probably the work of the Al-Qaeda group led by Saudi militant Osama bin Laden.

U.S. President George W. Bush spoke on 12 May in terms similar to those of Putin's. "Today's attacks in Saudi Arabia -- the ruthless murder of American citizens and other citizens -- remind us that the war on terror continues."

He added, "These despicable acts were committed by killers whose only faith is hate. And the United States will find the killers and they will learn the meaning of American justice."

The broad sentiments from Moscow and Washington may be similar, but there are large disagreements over specific issues.

Moscow counted former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as an ally, refusing to go along with Washington's claims he was developing weapons of mass destruction, the chief justification stated by the United States for the recent war.

Critics of the war in Chechnya say the conflict actually increases the conditions for terrorism by brutalizing the civilian population. Rights groups complain that Russian forces have destroyed most housing and infrastructure and subjected Chechens to arbitrary arrests, torture, and murder.

Lev Ponomaryov, a rights activist and former deputy in parliament, says the actions of separatists in Chechnya do look increasingly like those of extremists in other areas of the world, including those of international terrorists. But he adds that such comparisons are superficial because they fail to consider motives for the attacks.

"The fact that the war in Chechnya is increasingly resembling the actions of international terrorists is precisely a result of Russian authorities' policies. That is, Russia itself is bringing this about," Ponomaryov says.

Instead of taking steps to bring the conflict to an end, Ponomaryov says, Moscow is actually creating the conditions for radical groups to act. He says Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov condemned the Grozny bombing, a fact Putin ignored.

"Russian officials -- above all Putin -- ignore proposals from the [separatist] Chechen political leadership for talks, to end the war, and for Maskhadov and Putin together to fight the radical groups that conduct terrorist acts that result in the deaths of both Russian soldiers and Chechen civilians," Ponomaryov says.

But Ponomaryov says the differing views on terrorism between Russia and the United States will not necessarily cause relations to deteriorate further because Putin will likely soften his opposition to U.S. plans in Iraq.

The Kremlin has so far opposed U.S. proposals to sideline the UN in Iraq's future and has said it does not want to see Iraqi oil under Washington's control.

Moscow says the UN should play a central role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction and that UN inspectors must verify that Iraq no longer has weapons of mass destruction before sanctions can be lifted.

Robert Nurick, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, says both sides are seeking to narrow their differences over Iraq.

In the broader picture, he says differences about what constitutes terrorism are not the most important issue, pointing to the fact that Washington has publicly softened its criticism of the war in Chechnya since 11 September 2001 and acknowledged a link to Islamic terrorism elsewhere.

Nurick says a more important difference is what to do about the issue, citing Washington's disagreements with Moscow over the way it is conducting its war in Chechnya.

"There are big differences over how to deal with [terrorism], who should deal with it in particular, what kinds of actions are appropriate and what the role of international institutions ought to be," Nurick says.

Powell is also voicing U.S. concerns over Russian help in constructing a nuclear reactor in Iran. That, Nurick says, will be "the next big test" in U.S.-Russian relations.

Meanwhile, the State Duma, the country's lower house of parliament, today ratified the Moscow Treaty, negotiated with Washington last year to slash nuclear arms stockpiles by about two-thirds by the year 2012. Powell welcomed the news, saying it demonstrates "how the United States and the Russian Federation can work together on issues important to the world."