Russia

Russia's Putin defends Chechnya policy

By Oleg Shchedrov

LONDON, April 17 (Reuters) - Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, in Britain on his first foreign trip since his election victory, launched a strong defence on Monday of Moscow's hardline policy in Chechnya.

While pledging to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, he insisted that Russian forces faced "terrorists and extremists" in Chechnya.

"The actions of Russia are a struggle against extremism," he told a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "They are directed entirely against international extremism and terrorism."

Putin, under fire from human rights campaigners for alleged abuses by his forces in the rebel republic, said Chechnya was being used as a "launching pad for undermining Russian sovereignty".

Some 50 to 60 protesters upset at Russia's tough military campaign in Chechnya turned up outside Downing Street as Putin arrived in his black Zil limousine. They were shouting and waving banners demanding "Stop the torture in Chechnya".

Blair said he had raised his concerns on Chechnya with Putin but stressed he did not want to isolate Moscow on the issue.

Putin however made clear that that Russian political and public opinion on the Chechnya issue was very different from that in Britain.

"We certainly have very different positions," he said.

Blair said he welcomed Putin's commitment in his statement last week that all reports of human rights violations in Chechnya would be investigated.

"Some say that because of our concerns about Chechnya we should keep some distance from Moscow," Blair said.

"I have to tell you that while I share those concerns I believe that the best way to register those concerns and to get results is by engaging with Russua and not isolating Russia."

Blair said Russia's response to violence in Chechnya should be proportionate, that there should be political dialogue with the Chechens and that a non-governmental commision should investigate abuses there.

Protests at Downing Street

Putin and Blair ignored the demonstrators as they shook hands and exchanged greetings, then went inside for talks and lunch. In a touch reminiscent of Cold War summits, Putin was followed by two naval officers carrying what is said to be Russia's nuclear briefcase.

Russian officials say Putin wants to use his trip to Britain as a bridge-builder with the United States. But much of the media coverage ahead of the visit focused on his crushing of Chechen opposition.

Putin, 47, a former KGB spy, has ruled Russia since Boris Yeltsin's shock resignation on New Year's Eve. He swept to victory in presidential elections last month.

Before seeing Blair on Monday Putin met business leaders and appealed to them to invest in the "new Russia", saying Moscow would do everything possible to modernise its economy.

He sought to present Russia not as a minor power with a begging bowl but as an emerging giant in which the potential for business cooperation was "colossal".

"Russia is not a shortened map of the ex-Soviet Union," he said. "It is a country with tremendous self confidence." He pledged to reduce taxes, respect ownership of property, reform regulations and make sure they were applied consistently.

Initial reaction was favourable. "He's saying the right things. If even some of it happens, it will be very positive," said Richard Olver, chief executive of exploration and production at BP Amoco.

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