Russia launches new campaign in Chechnya

Nov. 3, 2002 at 1:21 PM
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MOSCOW, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced Sunday that Russian forces are launching a new military campaign in Chechnya.

Ivanov also told reporters that previous announced plans to reduce the Russian military presence in Chechnya had been suspended.

"I have decided to suspend fulfillment of plans to reduce the number of troops in Chechnya," Ivanov said.

The defense minister spoke to reporters after landing in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk where he arrived Sunday to meet with troops stationed in the region.

"Today, (Russia's) military grouping in Chechnya has started a large-scale, tough, but targeted special operation in all districts of Chechnya," the Interfax news agency quoted Ivanov as saying.

The minister explained the move by saying that in recent days, the government had received more information about possible attacks by Chechen rebels.

"In some areas, they are recruiting suicide bombers," Ivanov said.

Mired in a three-year armed conflict in the breakaway province, Russia had earlier decided to withdraw parts of its troops from Chechnya that were deemed "excessive."

On Sunday, Chechen rebels downed a Russian army Mi-8 helicopter near the capital, Grozny, killing all nine people aboard.

Russian authorities have strengthened security nationwide after the recent hostage crisis in a Moscow theater that led to the deaths of 119 hostages as the elite troops' stormed the building last Saturday to end the 4-day ordeal.

Akhmed Zakayev, a top aide to Chechnya's self-styled President Aslan Maskhadov was arrested on an Interpol warrant only days after the raid in the Danish capital of Copenhagen as he attended the World Chechen Congress there.

The charges against Zakayev suspect him of a series of terrorist attacks during the 1996-99 period, as well as participation in the planning of the capture of Moscow hostages.

During the hostage crisis, Chechen rebels made it clear Maskhadov was commanding the operation -- a confession that automatically discredited Zakayev's authority of a negotiator in potential peace talks with Moscow.

Moreover, Russia maintains that Zakayev's guilt is undeniable and insists that Danish authorities extradite him for trial in Russia.

On Friday, a Copenhagen court refused to hand over Zakayev, citing lack of evidence proving his wrongdoings.

The court said the extradition would be hinged on whether Moscow submits required papers.

A top Russian lawmaker said Sunday that he linked "certain hopes" for Zakayev's extradition with the upcoming visit of Denmark's justice minister to Moscow, as well as with the efficiency of cooperation between Russia's Foreign Ministry and Prosecutor General's office with their Danish counterparts.

"I suppose that the approach of the Danish government on this matter may still be changed," Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament told RIA Novosti news agency.

Margelov added that his optimism was bred by the fact that both Russia and Denmark were signatories of the European Convention on Extradition that allows Copenhagen to hand over Zakayev.

The legislator cited other documents, such as the U.N. Security Council's resolution on anti-terrorism and the Roman declaration, signed by Russia and NATO, as sufficient to validate the handover.

"We should by no means reduce the intensity of pressure on those countries that harbor terrorists," Margelov argued.

"I'm speaking, in particular, about (former deputy to Maskhadov Zelimkhan) Yandarbiyev, who is in Qatar, about (self-styled Chechen foreign minister Ilyas) Akhmadov who from time to time finds ways to meet with U.S. politicians in Washington," said Margelov.

"Both Interpol and the anti-terrorist coalition are acquainted with the list of these names."

Meanwhile, a Danish newspaper reported Sunday that Zakayev may request local authorities to grant him political asylum, Ekho Moskvy radio said.

According to the report, the Chechen emissary hasn't yet signed the application papers, but will do so in coming days.

Legal proceedings to consider Zakayev's bid for asylum may take up to six months, the envoy's lawyer told the paper.

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