Peace talks on Chechnya ruled out


RUSSIA: The Kremlin has ruled out the possibility of peace talks to end Chechnya's decade-long conflict, pledging instead to bring down President Aslan Maskhadov, once seen as the only separatist leader Moscow could talk to.

"We have to wipe out the movement's figureheads: Maskhadov, (Shamil) Basayev, and (Ruslan) Gelayev," Mr Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's Chechnya spokesman, said of top rebel commanders.

In Chechnya, Russian forces stepped up "special operations" after last week's 58-hour siege of a Moscow theatre in a bid to track down separatist rebels linked to the incident.

Hundreds of Russian troops surrounded refugee camps in neighbouring Ingushetia, along Chechnya's western border, witnesses said.

And Moscow police said they had arrested a former guerrilla carrying a champagne bottle with eight kg of the liquid metal mercury, a tiny amount of which can be fatal if swallowed or inhaled.

Police said they had no evidence directly linking the suspect to the theatre attack.

Some 50 rebels died in the theatre assault, but the gas also killed 117 hostages.

The rebels had shot dead two hostages.

An official from the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB security service, said the rebels held at least 110 kg of TNT equivalent - enough to kill all the hostages and bring down the building.

After the theatre siege, France and other Western states urged Moscow to talk to the rebels.

But Mr Yastrzhembsky echoed President Vladimir Putin's long-standing rejection of any talks with "terrorists".

"Maskhadov can no longer be considered a legitimate representative of this resistance," he said. "From the Chechen underground there is no one we are ready to talk to."

Mr Maskhadov, elected head of the separatist region after a 1994-96 war left Chechnya with de facto independence, was long the point of contact between the Kremlin and the Chechen rebels.

Last November, his top envoy was granted immunity to allow him to meet a Kremlin official at a Moscow airport, in the only formal encounter in the second campaign between the two sides.

And the Kremlin, which ceased to recognise Mr Maskhadov as President when Russian troops returned to the region in 1999, now links him to last week's hostage drama.

"Maskhadov was entirely aware of the operation and the tragedy has dealt a hefty blow to his reputation," Mr Yastrzhembsky said, after playing recordings of telephone conversations allegedly linking Mr Maskhadov to the Moscow attack.

Mr Maskhadov has distanced himself from the attack, offering his condolences to the victims' families.

Officials vowed there would be a major manhunt to track down those linked to the siege, including an alleged group of 100 suicide bombers holding Moscow resident permits.

They declined to say how so many armed guerrillas with assault rifles and bombs had been able to reach central Moscow undetected.

News agencies reported sweep operations in Grozny and several other districts of Chechnya, whose long-running conflict has only hit the headlines periodically over the past two years.