Putin calls Chechen peace deal a mistake; Russian troops move into positions along border with Chechnya


MOSCOW -- In a tense standoff, Russian and Chechen forces confronted one another along their mutual border yesterday, as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin told a national television audience that the nation's 1996 peace deal with Chechnya was a mistake.

In heated language reminiscent of the kind used by Russian officials at the height of the 1994-1996 Russian war with the separatist republic, Putin said that Chechnya is a criminal state and that Russia must crush its bandit gangs decisively.

Russian warplanes have been pounding Chechnya in recent days, and 30,000 Russian soldiers moved into positions along the border yesterday. Up to 2,000 Chechen fighters were massed on the other side.

In the aftermath of a series of terrorist bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and southern Russia, which authorities have blamed on Chechen rebel leaders, the public mood for revenge against the Chechens is high. More than 300 people were killed in the bomb attacks.

Putin made no mention of a ground attack by Russian forces against Chechnya but said intensive air attacks would continue. It was not clear whether the Russian forces closing in on Chechnya will blockade its border or whether a ground attack is being contemplated, as some Russian news media have speculated.

In a lengthy interview on the RTR network yesterday, Putin said that Russia must subdue bandits in Chechnya or face new terrorist attacks. He said Chechnya has carried out genocide, pogroms and rapes against Russian people.

"These people must be destroyed. There simply is no other response," Putin said.

Though that rhetoric is similar to what Russian officials used during the war, there is a difference. This time, there appears to be no opposition to war. Grigory A. Yavlinsky, leader of the moderate Yabloko party, was one of the main opponents to the Chechen war because of the high civilian casualties. But yesterday, he backed the current military campaign.

Authorities accuse two Chechen rebel leaders, Shamil Basayev and a man known as Khattab, of ordering the wave of terrorist bombings. The two are leading a guerrilla campaign to split the neighboring republic of Dagestan from Russia.

Putin said the two are being backed by international Islamic groups seeking to form an independent Islamic state in southern Russia.

The tough rhetoric from Putin comes as he faces enormous political pressure, with the main suspects in the terrorist bombings on the loose. Adding to his troubles, Putin promised last month that it would take just two weeks to defeat Basayev's militants in Dagestan, but fighting there has continued.

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