LONDON (Reuters) - Chechnya’s new rebel chief represents the moderate wing of the separatist movement who will avoid attacks on civilians while pursuing independence for the region, an exiled Chechen leader said on Tuesday.
Security analysts have been puzzled by the decision by Doku Umarov, a radical Islamist and Russia’s most wanted rebel, to step down over the weekend and appoint little-known Aslambek Vadalov as his successor.
Akhmed Zakayev, who was given political asylum in Britain in 2003, said he knew Vadalov personally and described him as an ally in the moderate wing with no links to Islamist groups.
“I know him well. He went through both wars,” Zakayev, who fought against Moscow as a senior commander in two wars in the 1990s, told Reuters.
“Our strategy is that trying to defeat Russia through military means is absurd.”
Zakayev said the new leadership wanted to focus on the possibility of talks with Moscow but did not elaborate. He added: “The only thing that we don’t accept ... is violence against civilians. (We have always) condemned acts of terror.”
Zakayev said he was in regular contact with the new leader and supported him, adding he was considering returning to Russia to pursue Chechen independence through peaceful methods.
Moscow fought two wars against separatists and eventually tamed Chechnya by allowing rebels from a clan that switched sides to take over the local government. But the insurgency is on the rise again, fuelled by poverty and corruption.
COMPLICATIONS FOR MOSCOW
The shift away from Islamist radicalism, if confirmed by action on the ground, could present new complications for Moscow because of the moderate wing’s friendlier image in the West.
Politicians in Europe and the United States condemn rebel violence but many are sympathetic to Chechens’ independence cause. The West is also critical of Moscow’s patchy human rights record and heavy-handed tactics in the region.
Russia says the rebel movement is financed by international militant groups but analysts and rights groups are sceptical.
Zakayev said Umarov, with his radical Islamist views, was manipulated by Moscow to reinforce that image, saying he was affectively toppled by those who disagreed with him.
“There is no al Qaeda there and there was never al Qaeda there,” Zakayev said.
“Doku, with all his statements that Chechnya is part of the international jihad ... was used to convince the West that Russia is facing the same problems there as in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world.”
As a self-styled Emir of the Caucasus, Umarov is listed as a terrorist by the United States and has sought to create an independent Muslim state in the region.
“He is still there,” Zakayev said. “I am sure that he will either be killed or taken out of the country.”
Umarov has claimed responsibility for many attacks including the March bombings of the Moscow metro that killed 40. Zakayev said the new Chechen rebel leader was against such methods.
He added he might consider returning to Russia but ruled out working for the Moscow-backed Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, whom he described as a “bandit”.
“I do not exclude that I might go back. But working for Kadyrov and (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin who is exterminating the Chechen people, of course that will never happen. Never.”
“But taking part in a political process aimed at longer-term settlement of relations and peace with Russia, that we will do. When there is no longer me, there will be other people.”
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)