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Friday, September 17, 2010

Chechen separatist Zakayev arrested in Poland

A senior Chechen separatist wanted in Russia for alleged murder and kidnapping was arrested Friday in Poland where he was to attend a conference organized by the World Chechen Congress, police said.

A representative of Chechen rebels denied Akhmed Zakayev had been arrested, saying he had turned himself in. Zakayev and his supporters have said the Russian allegations are trumped-up. He has said he represents the political faction of Chechnya's separatist movement, and has no connection to the military wing spearheading the region's insurgency.

"He has not been arrested but he went, at his own initiative, to the prosecutor's office to find out what they want from him," said Osman Ferzaouli, who is based in Denmark but was in Warsaw to attend the conference on trying to develop a concept to stop the Russian-Chechen conflict.

At Russia's request, international police agency Interpol had put out a "red notice" on Zakayev — the equivalent of putting him on its most-wanted list. Russia accuses the 51-year-old activist, who now lives in London, of kidnapping and murder during a separatist war in Chechnya in the 1990s.

Since then, Chechnya and neighboring regions in Russia's North Caucasus have been wracked with violence, and Islamic militants launch frequent attacks on the region's authorities.

Zakayev — who with his silver beard and impeccable grooming looks more the diplomat than guerrilla fighter — was apprehended Friday morning "without any trouble" and turned over to prosecutors, Polish police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said.

Prosecutors were examining the Russian warrant and other documents before questioning Zakayev and deciding whether to extradite or release him, prosecutors' spokeswoman Monika Lewandowska said.

An Interpol red notice is a not a warrant, but shares one country's warrant with other member countries.

Russia's ambassador to Poland, Alexander Alekseev, said this week that Russia "has proof" Zakayev was involved in terrorism, and Moscow expected Poland to detain him if he came to the country.

Polish authorities in the past have been supportive of the small Chechen diaspora there, but said they would be obliged to arrest Zakayev if he came for the conference, given the Russian warrant against him. Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said, however, that the matter should be solved between Russia and Britain.

Britain granted Zakayev asylum in 2003, and its refusal to extradite him has strained relations between Moscow and London.

Like most Chechens of his generation, Zakayev was born in the steppes of Kazakhstan to where the entire population of Chechnya was forcibly exiled in 1994 on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's orders. Many died, and those who survived returned to Chechnya in 1950s after Stalin's death.

Zakayev entered politics in 1994, when as an actor he was named culture minister by Chechnya's first separatist president just months before the Russian army rolled in to crush the tiny mountainous region's independence bid. The war ended in a cease-fire and a humiliating Russian withdrawal that left Chechnya de facto independent and largely lawless.

When the Russian army marched back into Chechnya in 2000, Zakayev was a top assistant to separatist President Aslan Maskhadov. Zakayev was wounded and left Chechnya, becoming Maskhadov's top envoy abroad.

Zakayev's charisma has won him many supporters, including actress Vanessa Redgrave, who has campaigned in his support and paid his $98,000 bail after he was detained at London's Heathrow Airport in December 2002.

He has said he represents the Chechen separatist political faction, and distanced himself from radical Islamic rebels. This year he denounced the militant leader who claimed responsibility for the Moscow subway bombings in March, which he described as a "monstrous crime."

"Violence produces violence," Zakayev said in an April interview with Associated Press Television News. "A huge state can't terrorize the population for 15 years without a backlash. People involved in that suffer a shift in their psychology."

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