Russian rights group meets Chechen rebel envoy




London. A Russian human rights group has met an envoy of Chechnya's rebel leader in London in an unprecedented bid to kickstart peace negotiations that Moscow has spurned.

"We're trying to fight the silence which surrounds this topic in Russia," said Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a high-profile rights and anti-war group.

Except for a single meeting in 2001, Russia -- which considers the rebels terrorists -- has refused any official peace talks with Chechen separatists since launching a second war in the Muslim province more than five years ago.

The Mothers risked the Kremlin's wrath to meet the personal representative of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.

"The Chechen side is ready to cooperate in fighting terrorism, within a bilateral relationship," rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev, who has lived in London since receiving asylum in 2003, told a joint news conference.

Under his proposal, which the Mothers offered to take back to Moscow, a withdrawal of Russian troops could follow along the lines of an agreement that ended an earlier war in the mainly Muslim region.

He said the rebels wanted an immediate ceasefire and offered to cooperate with Russia to fight terrorism as the first step in a peace plan.

Maskhadov's allies say such strikes are carried out by renegade warlords outside their command. Moscow, however, sees the rebels themselves as the source of terrorism.

Russian president Vladimir Putin pledged this week to keep up the fight against the rebels, which Moscow blames for attacks such as the Beslan school siege last year in which more than 300 people, half of them children, were killed.

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The Mothers' group, which has emerged as one of the few strong anti-war voices in Russia, was founded in the late Soviet times to defend conscripts' rights.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it welcomed any attempt to prevent terrorist attacks in Chechnya but did not believe much would come from meeting Zakayev. Pro-Moscow Chechens said the meeting was a waste of time.

"What does Zakayev have? Absolutely nothing," said Ruslan Yamadayev, a former rebel and now member of Russia's parliament.

"Zakayev sits in Europe, you can say he's a refugee," he told Ekho Moskvy radio.

An attempt last year by the Mothers group to meet Zakayev in Brussels was thwarted when the Belgian government refused the mothers and Zakayev visas.

The Kremlin strongly denounced those plans, but Russian officials were more relaxed in public about the meeting this week once it became clear it would take place.

Two men from the Russian Embassy in London watched the news conference.