Hundreds gather in Moscow to protest Chechen war

MOSCOW - About 500 demonstrators rallied in a central Moscow square Monday, calling for peace in Chechnya and demanding Russian journalists take a more critical line on the war.

A group of about 70 activists began the protest by marching along a boulevard behind a banner reading, "Forgive us Chechnya." They were joined by hundreds more at Pushkin Square.

Organized by a coalition of human rights groups and endorsed by a long list of Russian cultural and scientific celebrities, the rally was led by a popular political satirist, Viktor Shenderovich.

"We are a group of normal people who do not accept what the authorities are doing in our name in Chechnya," Shenderovich told the crowd.

After Shenderovich's speech, a Russian rock group took the stage.

Rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov's envoy in Moscow also attended the rally. Salembek Maigov said that despite of opinion polls that show the public favors talks with the Chechen rebels - an option the Kremlin long ago ruled out - most people are scared to speak out publicly.

He also accused the Russian media of creating a stereotype of Chechens "as terrorists, bandits and rebels."

Meanwhile, fighting between federal forces and rebels continued in Chechnya, with six Russian soldiers and one Chechen policeman killed over the past 24 hours, an official said.

Russian aviation bombarded suspected rebel bases in the Itum-Kale district and artillery shelled positions in the Nozhai-Yurt, Vedeno and Kurchaloi districts, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Also Monday, military officials announced that Russia's main police force will take over command of the war in Chechnya from the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, in September.

Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Abrashin told the Interfax news agency that a deputy minister from the Interior Ministry will be appointed regional commander of Russian forces, and 15 regional Interior Ministry offices will be established in Chechnya. Two military divisions will remain in Chechnya to provide assistance to Interior Ministry forces, the Interfax news agency reported.

The move appears to be an attempt to portray the situation in the war-shattered region as stabilizing by shifting the focus to law enforcement duties.

Human rights activists said the move would change nothing in Chechnya.

"In my opinion, it means nothing," said Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial, a prominent Russian human rights group. "People will continue to die, people will be kidnapped, terrorists will blow themselves up,"

Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya following a devastating 1994-1996 war that left separatists in charge, but they returned in 1999 after Chechnya-based militants invaded a neighboring region and after the Kremlin blamed rebels for bombings that killed some 300 people in Moscow and other cities.

In January 2001, President Vladimir Putin transferred control of Russian forces in Chechnya from the military to the Federal Security Service, saying the focus should be on providing security.

A delegation from the European Parliament arrived in the Chechen capital Grozny on Monday for a five-day trip to investigate the situation in the region. European institutions have expressed concern about human rights abuses in Chechnya.