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Lord Ahmed: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask what evidence he has seen in relation to Saudi money being used for terrorist activities in Chechnya. If I am correct, the noble Lord referred to a bank and whether that bank is used for channelling money to the terrorists. Does he say that the former president and government were all involved in terrorist activities? Alternatively, was it a group within Chechnya?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the answer is that the evidence is only a series of reports. Some are to be found on the Internet but some circulate semi-privately. It is not evidence. If the noble Lord looks at Hansard he will see that I said "it is said that". I repeated what I had heard. Of course, I cannot say that these are hard facts but they have been quite widely asserted.

I am not quite sure that I understood the last point made in the noble Lord's question. I am not saying that any senior members of the Saudi Government are involved. I do not know whether Mr Maskhadov and the official Chechen regime receive any succour from this money, but certainly moneys arising from oil revenues from the Saudis have been very widely used to purchase arms and promote terrorist activity. That has been identified and seen in Grozny. That is what I am told. If the noble Lord were to say to me that he can prove that all these reports are wrong, I would not hesitate for one moment in conceding that he was right because we are all trading on anecdotes and reports, some of which are false and some of which are true.

6.21 p.m.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I believe that that last exchange illustrates just one of the numerous complexities which we have tried to address in this short debate. I know that it is a normal courtesy of this House to say that the debate has been excellent and to express gratitude to the initiator of the debate. I do that with particular sincerity in this case to my noble friend Lord Rea. I have known him over many years and he has taken a particular interest in many issues,

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not least in some of the developments which have occurred in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and in the present Russian Federation. He and I have both taken an interest in these matters for some time. It has been a well-informed and thoughtful debate, recognising the enormous complexities of the issues. As other speakers have emphasised, the contribution of my noble friend Lord Judd was particularly well-informed. He has devoted a large part of his energies to this issue over the past few years.

The current conflict in Chechnya has now entered its third year and, although the intensity of the fighting has died down, casualties continue to mount on both sides. A number of speakers referred to the helicopter crash at the weekend. It goes without saying that, with the latest estimate of 14 people killed, our thoughts go out to the families of those who died in the crash. While it is not clear precisely what was the cause, we await the investigation by the authorities to see what can be found out.

Casualties have occurred on both sides. The militants continue to attack both military and civilian targets. Non-governmental organisations are still making detailed allegations of serious human rights violations by Russian forces. That point was emphasised by my noble friend Lord Rea and also referred to graphically by my noble friend Lord Ahmed. A large proportion of Chechnya's population has been displaced and many are enduring their third winter in makeshift camps, dependent on aid from foreign donors. The conflict has been very costly indeed in terms of human suffering.

Since the start of the current conflict, the Government have clearly and repeatedly stated our position in public and in dialogue with the Russian authorities, most recently at the meeting between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and President Putin on 21st December last year. As on numerous occasions in other contacts, he emphasised the importance of pursuing a political solution to the conflict in Chechnya.

We have always recognised Russia's territorial integrity as well as its right to defend its citizens from terrorism. We have condemned unreservedly Chechen attacks on civilians, their indiscriminate use of landmines and their maltreatment of Russian prisoners. But we have also stressed that Russian operations must be proportionate and in strict adherence to the rule of law. We have pressed the Russian authorities to investigate thoroughly allegations of human rights violations by federal servicemen. Those responsible should be prosecuted and, where appropriate, punished. We have also called for more effective co-operation between the Russian authorities and the humanitarian aid agencies.

It is true, of course, that the dreadful events of September 11th have had a profound effect on our bilateral relationship with Russia and its relations with the wider world. A number of speakers have emphasised that, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. Russia is a key partner in the international coalition against terrorism. It has played an important

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role in securing agreement at the Bonn talks on the future of Afghanistan. Russian personnel have also been hard at work delivering much-needed humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. The level of co-operation Russia has provided has been quite unprecedented. Its invaluable contribution should be recognised. We therefore support a genuine partnership between Russia and NATO, closer Russian ties with the European Union and Russia's accession to the World Trade Organisation.

Some commentators, including a number of speakers today, have suggested that we have gone further than that and somehow turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Chechnya in order to secure Russia's participation in the war against terrorism. I can give a categoric assurance to the House that no such change of emphasis has occurred. The events of September 11th have not altered the United Kingdom's position on human rights in Chechnya or anywhere else. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Howell, emphasised the importance of our relationship with Russia and how it is developing. I endorse that.

But we understand that Russia had genuine and legitimate security interest concerns about Chechnya before the present conflict began. Kidnapping was endemic in the region. Noble Lords will recall that four engineers working for Granger Telecom, including three Britons, were brutally murdered in December 1998. Some media reports claim that that they were murdered on the orders of the Al'Qaeda network or the Taliban. We have no evidence of that and we continue our efforts to shed more light on the circumstances surrounding these tragic deaths.

However, it is clear that the influence of extremists was growing in Chechnya before the conflict broke out. In the summer of 1999, Chechen extremists occupied a number of settlements in the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. Although the incursion was driven back by Russian forces, the attack on Dagestan made Russian military intervention in Chechnya virtually inevitable. Russia also suspected extremists of being behind the apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in Russia, in which over 300 people were killed. A number of speakers have said that there are problems of evidence about that. There have been questions about who was and who was not responsible. Obviously, that is a concern of the Russian authorities and we all know how such concerns move to the forefront of people's minds in conflicts of this sort.

Extremist elements continue to operate in Chechnya. Their presence cannot be ignored or tolerated, and only serve to damage the reputation of Chechnya in the rest of Russia and abroad. We have therefore called on the Chechens, including Mr Maskhadov, to sever their links with international terror groups immediately and without preconditions.

In the meantime, Russian forces and Chechen fighters are locked in a violent stalemate. I believe that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on the historical relationship between the Russians and the

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Chechens was particularly illuminating and important in this respect. We do not believe that either side can secure an end to the conflict through purely military means. The only way in which peace can be restored to this troubled republic is through political dialogue. There have been indications that the Russian Government understand that. During his recent visit to the United Kingdom to which I have already referred, President Putin remarked that it was simplistic to portray all groups currently fighting in Chechnya as terrorists. He made a clear distinction between Chechen extremists, backed by the international terror network, and those who are motivated primarily by nationalist aspirations. We were encouraged that President Putin opened the door to talks between his representatives and those of President Maskhadov.

On 18th November, Russian and Chechen representatives met for over two hours. In the context of the history of the area, it is remarkable that those contacts took place. That was the first official meeting between the Russians and the Chechens since the conflict began. Previously, the Russian Government had ruled out such talks. Russian spokesmen had consistently described all Chechen fighters as terrorists. Unfortunately, those contacts have not, to date, developed further. Of course, we fervently hope that they do. We urge both sides to resume their discussions as soon as possible in a spirit of genuine and constructive engagement.

There have been other positive contacts, which have already been graphically described, including the tremendous input of my noble friend Lord Judd through the Council of Europe. Last November, the United Kingdom funded a Council of Europe seminar on human rights in Chechnya, bringing together members of the Russian Government, the Chechen civil administration and representatives of Mr Maskhadov. We view that and other Council of Europe initiatives as an important step in building mutual confidence and understanding between Chechen moderates and the Russian authorities.

But we are still a long way from what could be described as a peace process. There is a wide gap between the Russian and militant positions. From our experience in Northern Ireland—although I acknowledge the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that it is sometimes difficult and may even be misleading to make international comparisons—we know how phenomenally difficult it can be trying to bridge the gap between two sides locked in disagreement, misunderstanding and conflict for centuries.

Some extremist groups will inevitably refuse to renounce violence and will do their utmost to undermine the political dialogue. But we believe that a

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political process must be central to bringing an end to the bloodshed. It also offers the chance of isolating the extremists, reducing their influence and the threat that they pose to Russia's legitimate security interests. We have therefore encouraged President Putin to pursue further contacts.

I should briefly like to make one further point, which is to stress the importance that the British Government attach to the aid programme in that troubled part of the world. We have continued efforts to alleviate the humanitarian plight of people displaced by the conflict. The United Kingdom is one of the largest aid donors in the region, having in the last financial year contributed £3.2 million to the UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal and £2.5 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross Moscow Regional Appeal. We have also provided assistance through our contributions to the European Community Humanitarian Organisation's humanitarian operations in the north Caucasus.

We have always recognised Russia's territorial integrity, as well as its right to defend its citizens from terrorism. But we do not believe that the situation in Chechnya can be resolved by exclusively military means. That is why we have always backed a political solution to the Chechnya conflict and will continue to do so. We are making continued representations at all levels and your Lordships' contributions in this debate are much to be welcomed as a continuation of that discussion.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he say something, at least, about the EU-Russia summit? Do the Government hope for a positive outcome from that in relation to Chechnya? I gave the Minister's office notice of that question this morning.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's point. He will understand that it is standard practice—it is normal—in advance of discussions of that sort for dialogue to take place in private before statements are made and the EU position becomes clear. I cannot prejudge precisely what will happen at this stage. In a sense, do not look in the crystal ball, look at the history book—look at what the Government have done and what has been our attitude to that conflict in the past. That will give a pretty good indication as to what will be our attitude in future.

London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill [HL]

Presented and read a first time.

        House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before seven o'clock.

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