Putin vows to retain Chechnya
MOSCOW, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin has vowed never to give Chechnya independence from Russia.
Putin has been criticised by Western powers for excessive military force in the breakaway republic, but he defended his action to American reporters at the Kremlin.
He had discussed Chechnya at his first meeting with U.S. President George Bush in Slovenia on Saturday.
Western criticism includes Russia's failure to care for refugees, prosecute alleged military abuses and investigate a growing number of disappearances among civilians.
But domestically, Putin owes part of his high rating in public opinion polls to his tough stance over Chechnya.
He admitted there were humanitarian problems and said Russia would co-operate with international aid groups, many of which have left Chechnya out of fear of kidnapping.
Putin said lawbreakers, including Russian soldiers, would be made accountable for their actions. but he also emphasised Chechnya would remain a part of Russia.
"We don't intend to act as occupiers. It's our country. It would be counterproductive," Putin said. "We understand that perfectly. We don't intend to carry out repression. Nobody needs that."
Putin outlined for reporters the history of unrest during the past decade in the Caucasus.
The strategic Caucasus region stretches from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea along a swathe of territory laced with current and future oil pipelines.
The Chechens, a people traditionally opposed to rule from Moscow, declared independence from the Russian Federation in 1991 shortly after the coup attempt to oust then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Moscow sent in troops in 1994 to crush the Muslim separatists behind the independence declaration but after fierce fighting Russian troops were forced to retreat.
Putin said: "It looked like a national humiliation.
"We were faced with the physical destruction of the ethnic Russian population, but Russia did not react. Russia at the time found itself in a very similar position as America did after the end of the Vietnam War. It was in shock."
Russia troops re-entered Chechnya in 1999 after rebels penetrated the neighbouring republic of Dagestan in what Putin described as an effort to establish a united Islamic state from the Caspian to the Black Sea.
He said talks with the rebels were impossible, and accused them of committing atrocities, including beheading foreigners, harassing ethnic Russians, threatening Jews and bullying their neighbours.
"What are we supposed to do here, talk to them about biblical values?" Putin asked.
"They have their own interpretation of the Koran and anybody wearing a cross is an enemy to them."
Putin said he had discussed with Bush what the U.S. would do if it faced a similar situation.
"I told the president, imagine that some armed people come from the south and want to take half of Texas," Putin said. "This is exactly what we're dealing with here."
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