Calm before the Chechen storm?

Rebels urge Russia to peace talks before Feb. 22 cease-fire deadline.

A surprise unilateral cease-fire ordered by two top Chechen rebel commanders has Moscow abuzz with debate. Experts are asking, is it a genuine chance for peace, a PR stunt, or an artificial lull before a fresh storm of Beslan-style terrorist assaults?

Few see much hope of ending the Chechen war, now well into its sixth year, unless there is a political breakthrough that sees the Kremlin, the separatist rebels, and pro-Moscow Chechen forces sit down together to seek a settlement.

President Vladimir Putin appears determined to stay his chosen course, which involves signing a treaty with the Kremlin's handpicked Chechen leader Alu Alkhanov - perhaps as early as this May - that will lock Chechnya into Russian permanently. But amid reports that the rebels could have acquired a nuclear device or radiological weapons, many experts see only an escalating cycle of violence in the offing.

"The situation in Chechnya is currently at a dead end," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies, in Yerevan, Armenia. "The key to its solution is in the Kremlin, but I see little hope of change there."

Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's rebel president-in-hiding, called attention this week to the self-imposed cease-fire, which had been announced last month on a rebel website but went largely unnoticed. He portrayed the move as an olive branch to get peace negotiations started, and urged Russian leaders to take up the offer to talk before the cease-fire expires on Feb. 22.

"If our Kremlin opponents are reasonable, this war will end at the negotiating table," he told the Moscow daily Kommersant, in a rare interview published Monday. "If not, blood will continue to be spilled for a long time but we will reject any moral responsibility for this continued madness."

The cease-fire was endorsed by Shamil Basayev, the notorious Chechen field commander who has claimed responsibility for many terror strikes against Russia, including the 2002 seizure of 800 hostages in a Moscow theater and last September's school siege in Beslan that left 331 people dead, half of them children. In an interview broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 News this month, Mr. Basayev declared: "We are planning more Beslan-type operations in future because we are forced to do so."

That threat gained ominous traction this week when self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky said a "Chechen businessman" had once offered to sell him a miniature nuclear weapon stolen from former Soviet stockpiles. "It is a portable nuclear bomb," Mr. Berezovsky said. "Some part of it is missing at the moment, but these are small details."

Russia's Foreign Ministry quickly denied that, saying that all Soviet-made "suitcase bombs" are accounted for. But independent experts say Chechen militants may well have the means to produce a "dirty bomb," with deadly radioactive materials wrapped around conventional explosives. "They probably don't have a real nuclear weapon, but we know they have had access to radioactive substances in the past," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based security expert. "This threat is very real. A dirty bomb could make part of a Russian city uninhabitable for 100 years. We may expect anything after the cease-fire ends."

Though the Kremlin has not responded to Mr. Maskhadov's peace overture, pro-Moscow Chechen leader Mr. Alkhanov said the only issue he is willing to discuss with rebel leaders is their surrender. "Negotiations with those who have engaged in bloody crimes against society are absolutely out of the question," he said. "The only real salvation for such people is to give themselves up and confess their crimes."

There is doubt about whether the cease-fire, which was to take effect Feb. 1, is holding. Russia's official ITAR-Tass agency, which usually reports peace and order prevailing in Chechnya, quoted Russian commanders Thursday saying there have been up to 20 rebel attacks each day this week.

Some experts say that Maskhadov, elected in Chechnya's only internationally recognized polls in 1997, no longer controls rebel forces and is a fading force. "Maskhadov is just one of the leaders of the Chechen resistance, and not even the strongest," says Mr. Iskanderyan. "[The cease-fire] may be just an attempt to show he's still relevant."

But 17 prominent Russian human rights activists issued a statement Wednesday warning that Chechnya was turning into an "eternal conflict" and urging the Kremlin to take up the offer for negotiations as "practically the only way of stopping Chechnya's transformation into yet another front in the confrontation between radical Islam and Western civilization."

The pro-Moscow Chechen government insists that reconstruction of the war-torn republic has made great strides, though there is little independent information. At a Moscow press conference this week, Alkhanov said the treaty being drafted will settle the conflict by granting Chechnya some economic autonomy "within the federal constitution."

But according to Malik Saidulayev, a Moscow-based businessman and Chechen community leader, there is no security, order, or prospect for peace in Chechnya.

The Kremlin's "policy of Chechenization of the conflict has failed and the situation in the republic has grown much worse," he says. "The war is not ending, it is spreading to the rest of the Caucasus region."

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