KRASNOYARSK, Feb 27: Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Iraq was becoming a haven for terrorists, and that the threat was growing.

Mr Putin, who has used the spectre of militancy to justify his own crackdown on Chechen separatism, did not specify which groups he meant.

"Terrorists are becoming masters of Iraq's territory," Mr Putin told students at Krasnoyarsk university in central Siberia, where he is on tour ahead of next month's presidential poll.

"It is a very dangerous process. The longer it continues, the more dangerous it will be." He said Iraq had been less of a threat to international stability before the invasion.

"There was a regime - a severe, dictatorial regime - but there were no international terrorists," he said. "Saddam Hussein destroyed them himself." The Russian president's decision to keep Russia out of the Iraq invasion boosted his already high standing among Russians.

Mr Putin earned international opprobrium for Russia's tactics against militants in Chechnya in 1999 and 2000. But the criticism has waned since the attacks in US on Sept 11, 2001, and the launch of US President George Bush's "war on terror".

Last year Moscow declined to support US action against Iraq, which owes it eight billion dollars, making Russia one of its biggest creditors. -Reuters

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