MOSCOW (Reuters) - A group of Russian Muslims are waiting for a response from Libya's Muammar Gaddafi to their offer to join his army, a community leader said on Tuesday.
Originally from Russia's volatile mainly Muslim North Caucasus, the Circassian people are scattered across the globe, with diaspora in Turkey, Syria and Libya. A 19th century Tsarist military campaign caused many to flee their homeland.
Their offer to send fighters was first aired at a gathering of Circassian community leaders in early April in the North Caucasus to discuss their reaction to NATO's air strikes.
"We wanted to pay back our debt to Libya for accepting Circassians who fled to the country during the Russo-Circassian War," said Aslan Beshto, who attended the meeting and helped draft an open letter to Gaddafi offering fighting help.
The letter was later published on Circassian community forum Natpress here
Beshto said they have not received an answer from Gaddafi.
Commenting on the letter, the Washington-based think tank Jamestown noted that Russia forbids its citizens from acting as mercenaries under law.
"I think that if we receive permission, there would be a certain percentage of people willing to help," Beshto said by telephone, adding that within two to three hours of his proposal, approximately 60 to 70 had offered their assistance.
Circassian leaders who gathered earlier this month outside of Nalchik, the regional capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, called on their friends and relatives to gauge sentiment toward sending compatriots to Libya.
Some 7 million Circassians are spread across the world, and about 700,000 remain in the northwest Caucasus. Circassian groups count 30,000 of their kinsmen in Libya, with 20,000 and 10,000 living in the rebel-held towns of Misrata and Benghazi respectively.
Strong ties amongst the Circassian diaspora have been revived by historical claims to the land where Russia is planning to hold its 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Known as ferocious warriors who for decades defended their historic homeland from Tsarist troops, Circassians say an 1854 military campaign wiped out 300,000 of them in and around Sochi.
The community has been waging an increasingly vocal campaign to press Russia to either cancel the Games or apologize for what Circassians say was genocide.
Russia, a veto-wielding permanent U.N. Security Council member, backed sanctions against Gaddafi's government and abstained in the vote on the resolution authorizing military action to enforce no-fly zones, allowing it to pass.
However, Russia has voiced concerns over what it says are possible civilian deaths due to Western military intervention, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened it to "medieval calls for crusades."
Editing by Jeffrey Heller