Akhmad Kadyrov, who is widely dismissed as Moscow's puppet, said on Wednesday his visit to Saudi Arabia showed there was international recognition of his rule and Russia's anti-separatist campaign.

During his first trip abroad as president of Chechnya since his victory in an internationally-criticised October election, he will meet Crown Prince Abd Allah bin Abd al-Aziz.

"I think the most important factor is that Prince Abd Allah invited the leaders of the Chechen Republic. This is a definite recognition of the current authorities," he said at a Moscow airport before leaving for the desert kingdom.

In 1996, Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest shrines, called Moscow's campaign against separatists in the mainly-Muslim region of Chechnya "foreign tyranny" at the height of a war which is still unresolved.

"I would also say that (the trip) is recognition that the operation that is going on (against separatists) is not against the people or against Muslims"

Akhmad Kadyrov,
Chechen president

Rebel funding

Moscow-Riyadh relations have also been strained by Russian allegations of Saudi funding for Chechen rebels.

But Kadyrov, a former rebel and Chechen religious leader, said his trip showed relations had improved and that Riyadh was preventing money being sent to the separatists.

"I would also say that (the trip) is recognition that the operation that is going on (against separatists) is not against the people or against Muslims," he said.

Kadyrov said he would discuss possible Saudi investment during his three-day visit, which will also take in meetings with the defence and health ministers.

"I do not think any documents will be signed... but we have received offers of investment in the oil sector," he said.

'Collaborator'

Kadyrov is the key figure in Moscow's peace plans in Chechnya, but rebels who refuse to surrender consider him a collaborator. 

His election last October completed a remarkable turnaround for the former mufti who once called on Chechens to fight a jihad against the Russians.

But he later abandoned his comrades-in-arms to become head of Chechnya's brutal pro-Kremlin administration.

This earned him the undying hatred of Chechen resistance fighters, who have since regularly targeted him in assassination attempts.

Russia's army has been blasted
for rights abuses in Chechnya

War casualties

Russian troops poured into Chechnya in October 1999, in an "anti-terror" campaign launched by then prime minister Vladimir Putin.

The republic had won de facto independence from Russia after a 1994-96 war, but it was overwhelmed by violence and kidnappings during the interim period.

The official Russian military toll from the second war is estimated at up to 5000 soldiers, although rights groups believe the figure may be closer to 12,000.

Russia says that up to 15,000 Chechen rebels have been killed, although the official civilian toll has never been published.