White house denies there was a "deal" exchanging U.S. support on Chechnya for Russia's cooperation.

U.S. Urges Chechen Rebels to Cut Terror Ties

26 September 2001

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a major diplomatic coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the White House on Wednesday urged separatist rebel leaders in Russia's Chechnya province to cut ties with terrorist groups.

The U.S. welcome of Putin's initiative for peace talks with Chechnya's rebels -- which the Russian leader reinforced with a 72-hour deadline for acceptance -- followed a Russian offer of limited support for the U.S.-led effort to combat terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

"The Chechen leadership, like all responsible political leaders around the world, must immediately and unconditionally cut all contact with international terrorist groups such as Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told Reuters. His comments were the first official U.S. reaction to Putin's offer for talks.

He later denied there was any "deal" exchanging U.S. support on Chechnya for Russia's cooperation in the terrorism effort. "No such conclusion should be reached," Fleischer told reporters.

President Bush has accused bin Laden and his al Qaeda network of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that left nearly 7,000 dead or missing and presumed dead. There was no question that there was an "international terrorist presence" in Chechnya with links to bin Laden, Fleischer said.

The United States has long criticized Russia for using excessive force against the Chechen rebels, and in last year's presidential campaign Bush said he would cut off aid to Russia until it withdrew from Chechnya.

"Putin's offer opens the door to a political settlement," Fleischer said.

"The United States has always said that only a political process can resolve the conflict in Chechnya, and we welcome the steps by the Russians to engage the Chechen leadership.

"Respect for human rights and accountability for violations on all sides are crucial to a durable peace," he said.

He also welcomed as an "encouraging sign" Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov's naming of an envoy for the talks, although there is doubt in the region over whether Maskhadov has control over hard-line rebels in Chechnya.

Putin on Monday coupled the offer for talks on Chechnya with his offer of limited support for the U.S.-led effort to combat global terrorism, which Fleischer said included permission for humanitarian flights over Russian territory, intelligence information and help in potential search and rescue operations.

"President Bush appreciated very much President Putin's offer of concrete cooperation in the common fight against international terrorism," Fleischer said.

Western officials have said the crisis has led to a reshaping of relations with Russia. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, after meeting Putin on Tuesday, hinted the West would take a softer line toward Russia over Chechnya.

But Fleischer denied the United States had violated any principles in wooing states including Russia to join an anti-terror coalition.

"American policy will still be based on what's right for America, in accordance with enduring principles of human rights (and) cooperation with nations around the world in accordance with those principles," he said.

By Randall Mikkelsen