The State Department will impose strict financial restraints on members of the groups and those who may support them.
The three groups, which have a number of aliases, were named as the Riyadus-Salikhin Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs, the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment and the Islamic International Brigade according to the Federal Register, a U.S. government publication.
The announcement marks the first time Chechen organizations have been labeled as terrorist entities and face anti-terrorist financial sanctions. The penalties will be less severe than the State Department’s more broad-brush list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, which will not apply to the Chechen groups.
Chechen separatists have been engaged in an intermittent battle for independence from Moscow for more than 10 years, a cause that has sparked two wars in the embattled region of southern Russia.
In a Friday press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said all three groups were “directly involved” in the October 2002 seizing of some 800 hostages in a Moscow theatre by Chechen separatists. Some 129 hostages and 41 of the hostage-takers were killed when Russian forces used a gas to storm the theatre and end the standoff.
Boucher also said that the three Chechen groups showed evidence of “training and money links” to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
A State Department press release further explained that the U.S. government does not “consider all Chechen fighters to be terrorists” and reiterated the U.S. position that the conflict in Chechnya should be resolved through political means.
“It remains our position that the broader conflict in Chechnya cannot be resolved militarily and requires a political solution,” the press release said. “We have made this point repeatedly to the Russians.”
The naming of the organizations had been anticipated since Secretary Powell told Russia’s RTR TV last week that three Chechen groups had been added to the list, but did not name them.
“We are very sensitive to the threat that Chechen terrorists present to Russia,” Secretary Powell said during the Feb. 20 interview.
“Recently, we added three organizations to our terrorist list, three Chechen organizations, and we are doing everything we can, working with Georgian authorities and we’re working with our Russian colleagues to help them in the war against terrorism, but, at the same time, seeing whether or not a peaceful solution can be found to the situation in Chechnya.”
Placement on the joint State and Treasury Department terrorist financing list requires banks to freeze any assets the groups may have in the U.S. and makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to make financial or material contributions to the organizations.
The Russian government has long supported the move, saying in the past that the U.S. government should regard rebel Chechen groups in the same light as the al-Qaida movement.
“This is good, long-awaited news,” Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a Russian presidential aide, told Russia’s Interfax news agency last week of Powell’s decision to add Chechen groups to the list.
“It’s a good signal indicating that even on these delicate issues, accurate and proper decisions can be made in the interests of Russia, the U.S., and the entire anti-terrorist coalition,” Yastrzhembsky said.
The U.S. move comes at a time when the White House is strongly seeking Russia’s support for a new U.N. resolution on potential military conflict with Iraq.
State Department officials have dismissed the suggestion that the decision on the Chechen groups is linked to the need for Russia’s support.
“This is something that’s been underway for a number of months and, as you know, it’s a very careful process of designating groups under, in this case, the financial restrictions executive order,” Boucher told reporters on Thursday.
“We look into it ourselves. We carefully analyze it against criterion standards of our law because it is a legal process or an administrative legal process. It has to be done carefully. So it’s been underway for some time,” he explained.
Because of the groups’ suspected links to al-Qaida, the U.S., with support from Russia, Britain, China and Spain, is asking the United Nations to put the organizations on its own list of sanctioned groups.