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Russia Says Foreigners Aid Chechen Rebels

December 24, 2003

MOSCOW (AP) _ In a bid to prove Chechen rebels’ links to international terrorism, the Kremlin on Wednesday displayed the passports of an Algerian, three Turks and a German who were among 17 militants killed by Russian special forces.

A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the militants were killed Nov. 23 near the Chechen village of Serzhen-Yurt. They included Algerian Mohamed Kadour; Turkish citizens Halim Oz, Mustafa Salli and Naim Dag; and German citizen Thomas Carl Fischer.

At a news conference spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky played a videotape showing Russian troops walking among bodies in a forest. He said federal forces had surrounded the rebel base and killed all militants they found there.

The Kremlin has repeatedly said rebels in Chechnya have close links with al-Qaida and other international terrorist groups. Putin rejected Western pressure to launch peace talks with rebel leaders, calling them international terrorists who must be eliminated.

Yastrzhembsky accused the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, which borders Chechnya to the south, of serving as a ``passageway″ for the rebels.

Copies of the foreigners’ passports distributed by Yastrzhembsky had a 2001 Georgian visa for the Algerian and 2002 visas for the Turks and the German. He said the third Turkish citizen had crossed the Georgian border in August.

Georgia’s acting President Nino Burdzhanadze, who arrived Wednesday on a visit to Russia, said she had been informed that the militants killed in Chechnya had Georgian visas. She said Georgian authorities had tightened border controls since the time the visas were issued.

Russia has repeatedly accused Georgia of sheltering Chechen rebels. Georgia rejected Russian demands to let in its troops to flush the rebels out, and launched its own security sweep in the lawless Pankisi Gorge on the Chechen border.

Washington has said some of the militants in Pankisi were linked to al-Qaida, and deployed U.S. military instructors to Georgia to help teach anti-terror skills to its troops.

Georgian authorities insist there are no rebels there now, but Yastrzhembsky strongly disagreed.

``Georgia was and remains a passageway for terrorists striving to penetrate Russian territory through the Pankisi Gorge,″ Yastrzhembsky said, adding that it was too early to start talk about visa-free travel between Russia and Georgia. Russia has agreements on visa-free travel with most ex-Soviet republics, but it introduced a visa regime with Georgia because of tensions over Chechnya.

``For such a number of terrorists to enter the territory of the Russian Federation, there must be an established network organizing the transport of these people to the territory of Chechnya,″ he said.

Yastrzhembsky said Chechen rebels and their supporters had enjoyed a ``most favorable atmosphere″ for their activities in Turkey, openly raising funds for militants fighting in Chechnya.

Yastrzhembsky said the German, Fischer, born in Tuttlingen in 1978, had converted to Islam and founded an Islamic center in Germany, where he operated under an Islamic-sounding last name.

Russian troops continue to suffer daily casualties in the war-ravaged separatist region of Chechnya. Seven soldiers were killed and at least 17 wounded in rebel attacks over the past day, an official in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration said Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

The latest Chechen war began in 1999, after alleged rebel incursions into the neighboring region of Dagestan and a series of apartment bombings. An earlier 1994-96 war ended in failure for Russian forces, who withdrew and left Chechnya with de facto independence.

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