US Slams Russia's 'Overwhelming Force' In Chechnya
By Elaine Monaghan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday, ending a post-Sept. 11 trend of avoiding criticizing Russia's campaign in Chechnya, accused Moscow of using "overwhelming force" in its battle with Muslim rebels there.
The sharp words came a day after Moscow announced results of one its bloodiest crackdowns in the secessionist province for a year, saying it had killed 92 rebels in a month.
"The latest information on Russian operations in Chechnya indicates a continuation of human rights violations and the use of overwhelming force against civilian targets," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a news briefing.
The chief Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said the casualties were inflicted in a host of settlements southeast of the Chechen capital Grozny and that five Russian servicemen were killed and 24 others wounded.
He gave no figure for civilian deaths, which have been almost impossible to verify independently in either of the two post-Soviet conflicts in Chechnya.
Human rights groups routinely put the civilian death toll in the thousands however, while the combatants equally routinely exaggerate enemy losses while minimizing their own.
A State Department official told Reuters the U.S. assessment that civilians had been targeted in the attacks on settlements including Argun and Tsotsin-Yurt was based on reports from Russians on the ground.
They included members of a human rights group called Memorial which has worked to document abuses in Chechnya but was originally set up in 1988 by late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov to remember victims of Stalinist repression.
The official also cited evidence from a group named after "glasnost" -- the word for openness used to describe the policies of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Boucher's words were a rude awakening after months of muted Western comments on Chechnya since Sept. 11, in contrast with the regular ear-bashings Moscow had received at international gatherings and bilaterally for the scale of the campaign.
He said Washington would continue to urge both sides to pursue political negotiations, adding that the lack of a solution and "the number of credible reports of massive human rights violations, we believe, contribute to an environment that's favorable toward terrorism."
His remarks sounded like a sharp rebuke to Russia's top general who ruled out talks with the main Chechen separatist leaders Thursday.
"It is clear that there are terrorist factions in Chechnya with ties to al Qaeda and international terrorism networks, and as part of the war on terrorism we're cooperating with the Russians on cutting off those kinds of ties," Boucher said.
"Unfortunately, the Russians have not pursued the initial and encouraging contacts with Chechen separatists," he added.
President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to reach President Bush by telephone to offer his support after hijackers flew airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington.
He followed up the call with a speech that for the first time drew a distinction between "terrorists" and independence-minded Chechens and opened the door to negotiations which have made no progress.
The United States responded by praising the speech and making its most public statements in months acknowledging alleged links between the Chechen fighters and elements of the al Qaeda network accused of being behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Since then it has tried to encourage Moscow to seek a political solution to the conflict and to investigate widespread allegations of atrocities by its forces. Putin's speech was followed in November by the first acknowledged talks between Moscow and a rebel representative since their latest conflict flared more than two years ago.

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