Dialogue the only option

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2002, 12:00am

More than 15 months after war was declared on terrorism, there is little indication we are closer to a secure future. Instead of eradicating the scourge, it seems a challenge has been laid down for terrorists to beat the odds.

They have - time and again, in increasingly daring attacks on civilian targets. Better surveillance and increased security help fend off threats, but no one can be completely safe. That was the case in Chechnya on Friday when the most heavily guarded building in the Russian province - the government headquarters - was hit by a suicide bomber. At least 55 people died in the worst terror attack on Russian soil.

Muslim-majority Chechnya has for centuries been a hotbed of independence-mindedness. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 spurred a push for autonomy that Moscow opposed and tried unsuccessfully to suppress three years later during a bloody, 24-month war. Lawlessness remained and in 1999 Moscow launched a ground offensive that has been much criticised by human rights groups. The thousands of Russian troops involved have failed to dislodge rebels from Grozny and nearby mountainous regions.

The Chechen conflict may seem far removed from the terrorist attacks in recent months in the holiday resorts of Bali and Kenya and in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Yet it shares a commonality in that officials have ignored the root cause of the violence.

Combating terrorism by rounding up suspects, bombing the hideouts of groups behind such atrocities and putting in place tougher security tackles only the immediate threat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, like his American counterpart George W. Bush, has vowed to fight fire with fire. After Chechen guerillas seized 800 hostages in a Moscow theatre two months ago, Mr Putin promised punishment and poured extra troops into Chechnya.

The response from extremists in the troubled province was the threat of more such attacks, and the result was Friday's devastation in Grozny.

Chechens, like Americans and all other people of the world, want peace. Russia is not willing to allow them independence, instead offering a measure of autonomy only on its terms.

Without a two-way dialogue based on equal terms and mutual trust and respect, there can be no hope of peace for Chechnya or security from attacks against Russian civilians.

Sri Lanka and Indonesia have turned to dialogue to resolve long-running separatist conflicts and stop terrorist attacks. Other nations fighting terrorism should take note.