WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish police said Wednesday they would arrest exiled Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev if he visits Poland as planned this week.
Zakayev, viewed by Moscow as a terrorist but granted political asylum by Britain in 2003, is due to attend an annual World Chechen Congress in Poland Thursday and Friday.
The congress brings together Chechen exiles who want independence for their North Caucasus province, which is part of Russia, and oppose its Moscow-installed leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
“There is an international arrest warrant on Akhmed Zakayev issued by Interpol following a request by Russia. It is the obligation of any country to detain such a person whenever he or she appears on the soil of that country,” Polish police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said.
“The police later hands the suspect to the court and the court decides on a potential extradition, but the police is obliged to arrest that person,” he said, adding the arrest warrant had been issued on the basis of terrorism charges.
Zakayev has said he wants to return to Russia to pursue Chechen independence through peaceful means. Zakayev was not immediately available for comment Wednesday on the Polish police comments.
Poland’s Foreign Ministry said it would be monitoring the congress “closely and with concern” as it was likely to reaffirm demands for an independent Chechnya that would upset Russia at a time when Warsaw and Moscow are trying to mend long-frosty ties.
The Russian embassy in Warsaw said this week that President Dmitry Medvedev would visit Poland later this year.
“When it comes to the Chechen congress itself, we would like to note that it is being co-organised (with Polish NGOs) by representatives of the ‘Chechen republic of Ichkeria’, which was never recognized by Poland or any other country in the world,” ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said: “We are warning our European partners that representatives of the so-called republic of Ichkeria in Europe are trying to organise events which do not help normalisation of the situation in the North Caucasus and are aimed at constantly stirring trouble.
“According to information we have, several persons who are planning to take part in this event are wanted internationally. We believe that our Polish partners will treat the need to take this aspect into account responsibly,” he added.
However, Bosacki said the fact that Britain, like Poland a member of the European Union, had granted asylum to Zakayev meant there were no legal grounds to ban the separatist leader from visiting Poland.
Moscow fought two wars against Chechen separatists and eventually tamed the region by allowing rebels from a clan that switched sides to take over the local government. But the Chechen insurgency is on the rise again, fuelled by poverty and corruption.
Politicians in Europe and the United States have condemned Chechen rebel violence but many are sympathetic to their independence cause. The West is also critical of Moscow’s patchy human rights record and heavy-handed tactics in the region.
Additional reporting by Gleb Bryanski in Moscow, editing by Gareth Jones and Janet Lawrence