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Asia Crisis

INTERVIEW-Russia to boost troops in Muslim south-Chechen rebel

* Zakayev says Kremlin planning military build-up in N.Caucasus

* Kadyrov, Zakayev not reconciled, did not discuss return

LONDON, Nov 18 (Reuters) - An exiled Chechen rebel leader said Russia intends to greatly boost troop numbers in its mainly Muslim south to tighten its grip on the restive region.

The comments by grey-bearded Akhmed Zakayev, who was given political asylum in Britain in 2003, follow Georgian and Russian media reports last month saying Moscow would quadruple the size of its army in the North Caucasus in 2010.

Zakayev, quoting his contacts in the region, told Reuters an "enormous" quantity of troops would be stationed in the North Caucasus, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has described as the country's biggest domestic political problem.

A Kremlin spokeswoman would not comment on Zakayev's predictions of troop increases and the press service of the North Caucasus regional military also declined comment.

"They want to solve the Caucasus problem before the Olympics and tell the world they have eliminated terrorism," Zakayev, 50, said in the interview, conducted late last week. "This will also put the North Caucasus in their hands."

Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, located close to the Caucasus mountains.

Zakayev forecast the Russian government would explain a troop increase by saying there was a risk of further conflict with southern neighbour Georgia, against whom Moscow fought a brief war last year. He did not say when the surge would happen.

The mountainous Caucasus area stretches from the Black to the Caspian Seas, taking in the poor, Muslim-dominated Russian republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan and the former Soviet states of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Analysts and rights campaigners say a silent war is raging in tiny Ingushetia, with near daily violence spilling out into neighbouring Dagestan and Chechnya, where Russia has fought two separatist wars over the last 15 years.

Local leaders and analysts say widespread violence is fuelled by a potent mixture of Islamism, clan feuds and poverty.

Zakayev said the Kremlin plans curfews, roadblocks, spot searches and arbitrary detention for the entire North Caucasus.

INVITATION TO CHECHNYA

Two telephone calls last month between Zakayev and Chechnya's leader, ex-rebel turned Kremlin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, dashed months of speculation the two had reconciled.

Afterwards, Kadyrov publicly called Zakayev a "chameleon" and a "liar" and Zakayev answered by saying the Chechen leader was a Kremlin messenger.

Asked if he would take up Kadyrov's offer earlier this year to return to Chechnya in an official capacity, Zakayev said: "We did not discuss this. My conflict is not with the Chechens, but with the (Russian) powers that be".

Zakayev is wanted by Russia on charges for 13 crimes including kidnapping and murder, but a British court ruled he will not face a fair trial on Russian soil.

He also said Moscow has been deliberately creating violence -- "it's blood to shock" -- in the North Caucasus, employing the FSB, the successor to the KGB, to convince the public that widespread security measures are needed. He did not provide any proof for his assertion.

Zakayev, whose extradition request has been a thorn in relations with Britain, said he is now focused on cultural projects for the Chechen and Ingush diasporas. (Editing by Michael Stott and Jon Hemming)

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