Albright confronts Russian hosts over war in Chechnya

In unusual move, diplomat criticizes excessive force and targeting of civilians

February 01, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright began a visit to Moscow yesterday by confronting her hosts over the war in Chechnya, accusing Russia of using excessive force and worsening its problems in the region by indiscriminately targeting civilians.

Igor S. Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, told Albright that Moscow would fight Chechen terrorists as it saw fit, whether its methods were popular or not.

"We have made quite clear that we think that there has been an incredible amount of misery injected upon the civilian population of Chechnya," Albright said at a news conference, "both militarily and also because of the creation of so many refugees."

Albright agreed with Russia's contention that it has been fighting terrorism, but said it has unnecessarily created a serious humanitarian situation.

"There has been excessive force used and civilians have been indiscriminately targeted in a way that has broadened and widened the problem," she said yesterday afternoon, after six hours of wide-ranging meetings with Ivanov.

It was an unusually strong public disagreement between top diplomats. Albright's tough talk was in marked contrast to the earlier war in Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996, when the United States largely ignored similar Russian tactics.

Then, however, U.S. officials were optimistic about the prospects for democracy and warm relations with Russia. Now, doubts have arisen about both, and the new mood was reflected in Albright's comments.

The Russian foreign minister, who was sitting next to her at the joint news conference, argued that there was no agreed-upon way to fight terrorism.

"Unfortunately, international practice has not yet produced a single formula for combating international terrorism," Ivanov said. "In each case, terrorism is manifested in its own way and has its specific features. And in each case, one has to use the forms, perhaps even unpopular forms, which in the opinion of the leadership of the country are effective in solving the problem."

Albright said Russia's problems with Chechnya would not be solved with military might. The territory harbors a volatile mixture of rebels seeking independence, along with terrorists and kidnappers -- and ordinary people desperately hoping for peace.

Russia is paying a high price for its refusal to negotiate with Chechnya, she said.

"I made it clear to the foreign minister that it was my sense that Russia was paying a toll internationally for its actions and was being increasingly isolated," she said.

If such isolation occurred, Ivanov replied, it would be temporary.

As they spoke, the bloody fighting in Chechnya continued. In reports from Chechnya, Russian forces asserted that they had driven Chechen snipers out of high-rise apartment buildings they have occupied around the strategic Minutka Square in the capital, Grozny.

Chechen fighters, however, insisted that they remained in control of the square.

Russia has limited press access to the battlefield, carefully controlling reporters' movements. Officials said yesterday that they were investigating a reporter for Radio Liberty, which is financed by the U.S. government.

Russian forces in Chechnya held the reporter, Andrei Babitsky, for several days before revealing that they had detained him. Officials said yesterday that the soldiers suspected Babitsky of helping enemy forces.

Russia's general prosecutor plans to travel to Chechnya today or tomorrow to investigate.

Commenting on the arrest, Albright said: "Freedom of the press is very important in this situation, as in others."

Today, Albright is to co-chair a Middle East peace conference in Moscow. She is expected to meet with the acting Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin tomorrow, the final day of her visit.

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