- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The
United States on Thursday, ending a post-Sept. 11 trend of avoiding
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
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
enemy losses while minimizing their own.
- A State Department official told Reuters the U.S.
that civilians had been targeted in the attacks on settlements including
Argun and Tsotsin-Yurt was based on reports from Russians on the
- 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.
- RUDE AWAKENING
- 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
- His remarks sounded like a sharp rebuke to Russia's top
general who ruled out talks with the main Chechen separatist leaders
- "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
- DOOR OPENED TO CHECHEN TALKS
- 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
- He followed up the call with a speech that for the first
time drew a distinction between "terrorists" and
Chechens and opened the door to negotiations which have made no
- 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
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.