MOSCOW (AP) _ Russia will intensify its support of Afghan opposition forces and is prepared to supply them with weapons and military equipment, President Vladimir Putin said Monday.
In a speech on national television, Putin also said that former Soviet states in Central Asia, which Russia considers its sphere of influence, had not ruled out providing their airfields for anti-terrorist operations.
The address from the Kremlin marked Putin's most specific outline of steps his country plans to take to help the United States following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The speech came two days after Putin spent and hour on the phone with President Bush.
``We are broadening cooperation with the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan headed by Mr. Rabbani and will render additional aid to its armed forces in the form of the supply of weapons and military equipment,'' Putin said.
Putin was referring to the government-in-exile of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban. The Russians already have been helping the Afghan opposition, which controls about 5 percent of the territory of Afghanistan, by allowing helicopters to fly in and out of Tajikistan, where the Rabbani forces pick up supplies.
Rabbani leads the very forces that battled Soviet forces and finally defeated them. But Russia sees the Afghan opposition as the best bet to defeat the Taliban and prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism into Central Asia.
The Russian leader did not say whether Moscow would provide direct military assistance or troops to any U.S. operation to hunt down the perpetrators of the attacks.
He did say, however, that Moscow would be ready to help in search-and-rescue operations, and that Russia was ready to open its airspace for humanitarian aid in case of an attack on Afghanistan.
He also said his country would provide active cooperation with international anti-terrorism efforts by further sharing intelligence on the infrastructure of international terrorist groups and their bases.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Putin has remained noncommittal in public about Russia's strategy on possible U.S. strikes on Afghanistan, whose Taliban rulers refuse to hand over prime suspect Osama bin Laden and his fighters to the United States. Russia's position is crucial, especially if an operation is staged from Central Asia.
Putin has said that Russia is ready for wide cooperation with the United States but officials have indicated Moscow would not offer troops for any U.S. military action _ and would not welcome any unilateral decisions by the United States.
In his speech Monday, Putin also called for greater reliance on international organizations such as the United Nations and its Security Council in determining what steps to take against international terrorism.
He said his position was shared by Russia's allies in Central Asia, nations that are near Afghanistan and ``do not rule'' out providing their air bases in the fight against terrorism.
``Other, deeper forms of cooperation between Russia and participants in the anti-terrorist operation are possible. The depth and character of this cooperation will directly depend on the general level and quality of our relations with these countries and on mutual understanding in the sphere of fighting international terrorism,'' Putin said.
Russia and the Central Asian states fear a refugee flood or spillover violence from U.S. strikes on Afghanistan could further rock the restive region and drain its scarce finances.
He made the remarks in a television address following a meeting with Russian parliamentary leaders following the devastating attacks Sept. 11 in the United States.
``I decided I should not make the final decision before meeting you and consulting you on this issue, which is very important for Russia's place in the world now and in the future,'' Putin told about two dozen party leaders from both houses of the Russian parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council, who were gathered around a huge round table in the Kremlin.