A key Russian official warned Monday that his country might launch airstrikes against Afghanistan if that country's ruling Taleban continues to support Islamic rebels fighting for independence in Chechnya.
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility of preventative strikes if a real threat to Russia's national interests develops," said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman on the Chechen war.
Yastrzhembsky said the Kremlin has fresh evidence that the Taleban and millionaire Saudi exile Osama bin Laden are secretly sending money and fighters to aid the Chechen rebels. Bin Laden, an Islamic militant living in Afghanistan, is thought to be the mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. After the bombings, the United States launched retaliatory cruise missile attacks against bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan, an action Russia condemned at the time.
Russian officials have long claimed that the Chechen war is part of an international battle that unites Russia and the West against Islamic terrorists. Now, with Chechen guerrillas still ambushing and killing Russian troops and the spring thaw reopening mountain paths used by the rebels, Moscow seems to be contemplating widening the war to Afghanistan. Airstrikes, Yastrzhembsky said, "are a fairly real prospect, in the case that the developments there unfold according to a negative scenario."
Yastrzhembsky said Russian intelligence had learned that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's representatives met with bin Laden and Taleban officials in Afghanistan more than a week ago to sign an agreement after the Chechen president requested "a large group of mercenaries."
Afghanistan promised 70 to 100 Islamic mercenaries, Yastrzhembsky said. "Assistance is to be rendered in the shape of human resources, weapons and ammunitions."
U.S. officials said they were unaware of any meeting between Maskhadov's representatives and bin Laden. At the same time, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, citing a U.S. official, said bin Laden and other Islamic radicals have been providing assistance to the Chechen rebels. He declined to elaborate.
If Moscow does follow through on its threat, Russian officials could cite the earlier U.S attack to help defend a Russian military strike in Afghanistan.
"It would be very difficult for us to get up and protest something like this if Moscow is arguing that it's going after terrorist bases in Afghanistan," said Thomas Graham, with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "You're not going to get a sharp reaction from Washington. It might be mildly positive."
Although the United States does not support the Taleban, it is unlikely to welcome the prospect of renewed Russian military action in Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, beginning a decadelong conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 15,000 Soviet soldiers. Russian forces withdrew in 1989 after conceding defeat at the hands of Afghan rebels who were armed and trained with help from the CIA.
Russia's saber-rattling could complicate preparations for a June summit between President Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott is to arrive in Moscow on Wednesday for a two-day visit.
The nine-month-long Chechen conflict is likely to be a major issue at the summit, with Putin expected to defend Russia's pursuit of the war as a campaign against terrorists. The United States and other Western nations have called for a political solution, criticizing Russia for human rights abuses and needless civilian casualties.