Putin lauded as Blair seeks Russian help

Tony Blair yesterday praised the strong leadership of the Russian president Vladimir Putin as he sought assurances that US and British military assets could be used in the former Soviet republics bordering northern Afghanistan.

Tony Blair yesterday praised the strong leadership of the Russian president Vladimir Putin as he sought assurances that US and British military assets could be used in the former Soviet republics bordering northern Afghanistan.

Mr Blair said: "The cold war is over and we have a real opportunity to forge new relationships in our battle against international terrorism."

Mr Putin said he understood the dangers of Islamist terrorism, pointing to the hundreds of deaths in Moscow which he blames on Chechen rebels, some of whom may have been funded by Osama bin Laden.

The Russian president went further than his earlier remarks by saying the aim was to neutralise terrorism. He said if innocent Afghans died in military action the blame would lie with the Taliban.

He said: "I have no doubt at all military action can be effective. The foremost condition is the making of an effective alliance of countries to combat this problem and to keep it going for a long time.

"The Afghan people are already suffering under the yoke of the Taliban. Our principal goal is to rid the Afghan people of this suffering. It is clear terrorists have made the Afghan people hostages."

He also promised to try and ensure that whatever came after the Taliban led to a rehabilitation of the Afghan economy.

President Putin and Mr Blair, who have now met eight times, were speaking in the Kremlin following talks at the start of a whirlwind tour of the region by the British prime minister.

British security service tensions over the trip were heightened by the Russian aircraft explosion yesterday. Mr Blair flew in an RAF VC10 and travelled to the Kremlin in a 20-car motorcade. His officials refused to disclose his next destination but it is widely expected to be Pakistan.

President Putin told a press conference that he had already made clear the nature of the Russian contribution to fighting terrorism, explaining: "This may lead to the neutralisation of the most odious international terrorist."

He added he did not rule out extra co-operation but said this "depended on the attitudes of other countries".

He praised both Mr Blair and the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder for making attitudes to Russia more benign.

"We have only taken the first steps, there is a lot more to do."

Mr Blair's officials said they had handed the Russians further evidence of Bin Laden's involvement in the attacks on New York but added: "President Putin has been pretty clear for some time that Bin Laden is responsible."

Mr Blair is impressed by Mr Putin's agreement to US involvement in what has traditionally been a Russian sphere of influence.

He said: "From my very first meeting I recognised that President Putin is a man who had the imagination and courage to set relations on a new course."

Mr Putin replied that he did not blame the west for being slow to see the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, saying: "It was natural that if a tragedy is visited upon your neighbours that you hope it will pass you by."


Patrick Wintour in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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