MOSCOW - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council yesterday included an important message for the Kremlin: Washington sees growing evidence of the ties that Russia has long said existed between international terror groups and Chechen separatists.
As part of his case against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Powell charged that Abu Musab Zarqawi, an alleged al-Qaida leader, is being sheltered by Baghdad.
And in remarks sure to gratify Russian leaders, Powell said Zarqawi plotted "poison and explosive" attacks against targets in Europe and Russia, using a terrorist network consisting partly of operatives trained in Chechen rebel strongholds.
"The plotting to which they are linked is not mere chatter," Powell said. "Members of Zarqawi's network say their goal was to kill Russians with toxins." He also said Zarqawi had visited areas controlled by Chechen separatists.
Western nations have long called on Russia to negotiate an end to the 3 1/2 -year-old conflict in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. The Kremlin refuses, saying it is battling Islamic extremists, not independence fighters.
Powell's effort to link Chechnya and al-Qaida could win stronger Russian support for the Bush administration's hard line toward Iraq. Russia, which is owed billions of dollars by Iraq, has argued for restraint. But in recent days, President Vladimir V. Putin has moved closer to endorsing American policy.
After Powell spoke, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told the Security Council that U.N. inspectors should continue their work in Iraq. But "the information given to us today will require very serious and thorough study, Ivanov added. "Experts in our countries must get down to analyzing it and drawing the appropriate conclusions."
Iraq, he said, should "give the inspectors answers to the questions that we have heard in the presentation by the United States' secretary of state."
The Russians have been increasingly worried about Chechen terrorism, especially since October when a band of about 50 Chechen guerrillas seized a music hall in Moscow and held more than 850 people hostage for 2 1/2 days. At least 129 of the hostages and 41 guerrillas died after Russian special forces raided the theater.
Citing statements by an unnamed person in custody, Powell alleged that Zarqawi helped lead a network of terrorist cells scattered throughout Europe.
After a raid on a Manchester apartment last month, British police arrested four Algerians, all alleged members of one of the cells. They had reportedly set up a crude lab for producing the deadly toxin ricin.
Police said some of the men had recently returned from training in Chechnya. Powell linked the group to Zarqawi.
Russians authorities recently reported finding an al-Qaida training manual that describes the manufacture of ricin at a rebel base in Chechnya. They said the discovery was linked to a similar discovery in Georgia, as well as the apartment in Manchester.
For years, small bands of Muslim volunteers have fought on the side of Chechen rebels. The Russians estimate - and the Chechen rebel leadership agrees - that about 200 foreign fighters are in the region at any given time. But the Chechens deny supporting radical Islamic groups.
Some terror organizations have sought to forge links with the Chechens. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who became Osama bin Laden's senior lieutenant, headed for Chechnya in 1996 to try to establish a new base for his Islamic Jihad movement.
But Chechens leaders say they have always refused to embrace Islamic extremism.