Poland arrests Chechen exile leader on Russian warrant

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Polish police on Friday arrested Chechen independence leader Akhmed Zakayev, wanted by Russia on terror charges, paving the way for a legal and diplomatic battle over his possible extradition.

Zakayev had arrived in Poland on Thursday to attend a two-day congress of of some 300 exiles from conflict-torn Chechnya, despite warnings from Polish authorities that he risked being taken into custody.

He is normally based in Britain, where he has been granted political asylum.

Police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said Poland was responding to a warrant issued by Russia via Interpol and had no option but to detain Zakayev.

"Because there was an international arrest warrant, police were under an obligation to detain him and to take him to prosecutors," Sokolowski told TVN24 television.

An aide to Zakayev had said on Thursday that he had planned in any case to surrender to Polish prosecutors the following day.

And in a twist to the case, Zakayev told the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita in an interview before his arrest that the authorities had paid no attention when he visited Warsaw in August.

Zakayev was the European representative of the Chechen separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, who died fighting Russian forces in 2005.

Britain granted Zakayev political asylum in 2003 and has rejected Moscow's calls for him to be extradited.

The extradition battle over Zakayev will start in the courts. Only if a judge approves extradition will it go to the justice ministry for a final ruling.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Thursday warned Russia not to count on getting the decision it wanted.

"The extradition procedure isn't the same as extradition," he was quoted as saying by PAP at the European Union summit in Brussels.

But he also warned supporters of an independent Chechnya against staging any anti-Russian provocations.

In Moscow, Russia's chief prosecutor Yury Chaika pledged that Zakayev would get a fair hearing.

A statement from his office Friday said that Chaika had spoken to his Polish counterpart by phone.

Chaika had "guaranteed that in the event of Zakayev's extradition to Russia all his rights under international law would be observed and a fair ruling would be made," said the statement.

Moscow had sent Poland all additional evidence on the case, the statement added.

Zakayev stood accused of "especially grave crimes including terrorism," said Chaika.

For Poland, whose frosty ties with Russia have been thawing recently, the arrest is a thorny issue, said Marek Menkiszak, a Russia expert at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies.

"Poland is in a sense being played with in a set-up, or attempted set-up, by the secessionist Chechen authorities and the Russian Federation," Menkiszak said.

Poland would also be under pressure from Britain because of Zakayev's refugee status there, he added.

"It also faces a serious dilemma, with its obligations as a member of Interpol on the one hand, and on the other a situation in which Russia hasn't been able to supply convincing evidence of terrorist activity by Zakayev."

Moscow has fought two full-blown wars with separatists in Muslim-majority Chechnya since 1994, which left the region devastated.

It is now battling a radical Islamist-fuelled insurgency there and in the neighbouring Caucasus regions of Dagestan and Ingushetia.


© 2010 AFP

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