Putin unveils new drive to end Caucasus extremism

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Tuesday time was running out for extremists in the Caucasus, as he announced an ambitious drive to bring prosperity to the violence-torn region.

Putin told top government officials to come up with plans to turn the former war zone of Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia into an investor haven as he vowed to quash any attempts to break up Russia.

"Yes, extremists are still carrying out acts of terror today but more and more they are degenerating into common criminal groups," Putin said in the speech in the spa town of Kislovodsk in the Caucasus foothills.

"But their time is running out. We will with all our force protect the life, rights and security of our citizens," he said, pledging that the government would turn the impoverished region into a land of world-class skiing resorts and top tourist attractions.

At the meeting considering the strategy for the region through 2020, he called for the creation of 400,000 extra jobs within the next 10 years, saying its economy should in the next few years post a growth rate of 10 percent.

"We understand that it's a very difficult task but it needs to be done," Putin told the meeting of his ruling United Russia party and top local officials, including Chechnya's strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Ingushetia's Yunus-Bek Yevkurov who was nearly killed in an attack last year.

"We all need a peaceful, prosperous Caucasus."

Russia is battling a violent Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, and deadly attacks in the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are a near-daily occurrence.

Militants from the Caucasus were also blamed for the bombings on the Moscow metro on March 29 carried out by two female suicide bombers that killed 40 people in a pair of coordinated attacks.

At the meeting Putin said widespread unemployment was the region's most acute problem and helped militants recruit new fighters.

One out of five people has a hard time finding a job in the region, with unemployment standing at over 50 percent in Ingushetia and 30 percent in Chechnya, Putin said.

The Kremlin attempted to strengthen its hold on the region in January, when it appointed a new envoy responsible for the North Caucasus, businessman Alexander Khloponin.

Khloponin has been tasked with coming up with a blueprint to end violence in the region and excerpts published in Russia's Newsweek showed he pins his hopes mainly on economic development, including the creation of new jobs and the setting up of development banks.

Putin said a branch of Russia's state-owned Vnesheconombank would be set up in the Caucasus to help with investment projects, while the finance ministry would provide loan guarantees for business projects undertaken there.

Foreign and Russian entrepreneurs prefer now to do business elsewhere but regional officials should do their best to bring investors in the region, Putin said, adding that regional leaders should treat any investor as "a family member."

Critics charge that the a major weakness of the Caucasus strategy is that no one clearly knows how much money is required for the plan for the region, where corruption and nepotism are a way of life.

The Stavropol region, which includes Kislovodsk, lies on the northern edge of the Caucasus and has until now rarely seen the bloody attacks that characterise the simmering guerrilla war between Russian forces and separatist rebels.

But in a sign that the region still presents a major security risk, the government first said that Putin would fly to the nearby city of Pyatigorsk, notifying reporters at the last minute his visit would be to Kislovodosk.

A government spokeswoman explained "security reasons" were behind the move.

© 2010 AFP

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