COPENHAGEN, Oct 29: Chechen exiles appealed in an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to immediately halt the war in the republic that they termed genocide.

“We call on you to take immediate steps to stop the suffering of the Chechen people,” the World Chechen Congress said in the letter on the final day of a conference here that provoked fierce protests from the Kremlin.

“The Chechen people are being eliminated by Russian forces and you are the commander in chief,” it said, calling for negotiations between Russia and Chechnya.

“There are no alternatives to political dialogue.”

US President George W. Bush also believes “political dialogue” is needed to end the conflict, but worries that global terrorists may be operating there, a spokesman said Tuesday in Washington.

“Clearly, to the degree that there is Al Qaeda operating, international terrorists operating in Chechnya is a source of concern,” said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.

“But the President does believe that the ultimate solution to the crisis in Chechnya must be resolved through political dialogue,” he said.

The three-year “forgotten war” between Russian forces and Chechens fighting for independence was thrust back into the spotlight last week after commandos held 800 people captive in a theatre for three days.

Russian forces stormed into the southern republic in Oct 1999 in a “counter-terrorism operation” after a first war from 1994 to 1996.

The latest campaign has left a heavy toll — Russia says at least 4,500 soldiers have been killed, while conference speakers said up to 150,000 lives had been lost on the Chechen side, many of them children, and tens of thousands more have fled.

“This is not a war on terrorism but simply genocide of a small ethnic nation called Chechnya,” said Congress president Mohammad Shishani.

Denmark allowed the conference to go ahead only days after the bloody end to the siege, despite Russia accusing it of “solidarity with terrorists.”

The Danish authorities, however, agreed to move an EU summit with Russia next month to Brussels after Moscow warned it would boycott the event if it was held in Copenhagen.

EU leaders plan to discuss the situation in Chechnya at the Nov 11 summit after Russian officials agreed to include it on the agenda, according to an EU source.

The letter to Putin said congress delegates “condemned all terrorism” including the hostage stand-off which it said had hindered any push for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

But it added: “State terrorism is the most dangerous form ... based on the full power of the state, its armed forces and police.”

The letter to Putin expressed dismay at Russia’s attempt to ban the Copenhagen conference, saying the only goal was to seek a solution to the suffering of the Chechen people.

Russia had claimed there were “terrorists” among delegates, who included top Chechen officials, campaigners from both Russia and Chechna and acclaimed British actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Putin has vowed to retaliate after the Moscow siege and refuses to negotiate with the separatists, insisting they have links to international terrorism, including top terror suspect Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

In a final declaration, delegates called for an international war crimes tribunal to be established to investigate alleged abuses in the Russian republic and for Chechens displaced by the conflict to be considered refugees of war.

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov called on Russia on Monday to return to the negotiating table, warning that more attacks were otherwise inevitable.

“There is one reasonable, correct step — to sit down at the negotiating table,” he said.

Vanessa Redgrave, founder of the International Campaign for Peace and Human Rights in Chechnya, said the people were being subjected to “cruel and barbaric” treatment in “ghettos” she likened to Stalin’s notorious Gulag labour camps.

A short film she produced about the plight of children in the conflict was shown at the conference — images of villages bombarded by Russian forces, a crying baby with only a stub for leg, a young girl with hands wrapped in bandages like boxing gloves.—AFP