"We need a fresh look on Chechen politics and on the use of negotiation. Cleansing operations alone will not solve the situation," Alexander Brod, who heads the Moscow office for Human Rights, said on Monday in reference to military sweeps in Chechnya.

Sergei Arutyunov, a top Caucasus specialist at Russia's Academy of Science, also blamed Putin for his staunch refusal to sit down for talks with Maskhadov, including during the Beslan hostage crisis.

"Negotiations with Maskhadov would have undermined the position of Basayev", he told reporters in Moscow.

Mediation offer

Feared Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has apparently claimed responsiblity for the bloody school siege in Beslan, which claimed the lives of 339 people, half of them children.

Arutyunov added that many children could have been saved if Maskhadov had been asked to negotiate with the hostage-takers, who were demanding Chechen independence.

"The Beslan tragedy was used to reinforce authoritarian tendencies"

Alexander Brod,
Moscow office for Human Rights

The former Chechen president had offered to help mediate an end to the hostage siege.

"The Beslan tragedy was used to reinforce authoritarian tendencies," charged Brod, who was speaking on behalf of a respected rights organisation, the Helsinki Group.

He accused authorities of portraying Chechens and others from the Caucasus as "enemies, destructive forces," thus exacerbating xenophobic feelings.

Assaults

In the wake of the Beslan tragedy, several restaurants serving cuisine from the Caucasus were attacked and their owners severely beaten in the Urals region, in a series of racist attacks that left one person dead and two injured.

Aslan Maskhadov is the former
president of Chechnya

Several people from the Caucasus region were beaten up in the Moscow metro last weekend, Brod added.

He also called the appointment of Vladimir Yakovlev at the helm of the nationalities ministry a "hasty and unfounded decision", stressing that "extremist" groups had consolidated in Russia's second city Saint Petersburg under Yakovlev's tenure as governor.

Yakovlev formerly served as presidential representative in Russia's southern region after stepping down as Saint Petersburg mayor.