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Putin leaning toward talks on Chechnya

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MOSCOW — In a sharp about-turn, President Vladimir Putin said today Moscow may hold peace talks with the Chechen rebel leader on condition he gives up the breakaway region's 10-year-old independence bid and disarms all militants.

"Talks are always better than actions involving the use of force," Putin said in the southern city of Kislovodsk where he was conferring with regional officials on the situation around Chechnya.

Until now, the Kremlin has angrily dismissed criticism of the war from Western governments and international human rights groups that called for peace talks. Putin has continually said that the military campaign must go on until all rebels are crushed.

Referring to a proposal by liberal lawmaker Boris Nemtsov to hold talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Putin said that "we are ready for contacts with anyone," adding that preconditions for such talks would be Chechnya accepting federal rule, disarming all the rebels and surrendering "the most notorious field commanders, whose arms are elbow-deep in the blood of the Russian people."

He then added with irritation that he expects Nemtsov to ensure that the rebels meet these conditions within no more than three months, or resign as a lawmaker.

"A month, two or three — it makes no sense to wait any longer because any activities in this direction would then be pointless," Putin said in remarks broadcast by Russian television channels.

Nemtsov, who recently traveled to Chechnya, said it was up to the Kremlin to launch the talks.