IHT - Talbott assails Russian tactics; defense minister returns fire

West's relations with Moscow at new low over Chechen War

Paris, Friday, December 24, 1999

MOSCOW - Strobe Talbott, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, accused Russia on Thursday of violating international standards during its military offensive in Chechnya, and in Belgrade, the Russian defense minister said that relations between Moscow and NATO had plunged to a new low because of Western pressure over tactics in the Chechen war.

Mr. Talbott, who met with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his three-day visit to Moscow, said that discussions on both Chechnya and arms

control had revealed ''substantial differences, indeed disagreements,'' between the two sides.

He sharply criticized Russia over its conduct in the Chechen war and also said that talks on the ABM treaty would have to be resumed early next year.

Mr. Talbott said the United States wanted to see Russia deal with what is a global problem ''of extremism and terrorism,'' but it also wanted to Russia to deal with that problem ''in a fashion that meets international norms.''

He added: ''And the feeling is that this standard has not been met.''

Mr. Talbott urged Moscow to open negotiations to settle the Caucasus conflict.

In Belgrade, the Russian defense minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, admonished the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for criticizing the war in Chechnya, where rebel fighters were reported to be putting up fierce resistance Thursday as civilians fled the battered capital, Grozny.

''Our relations with the alliance have apparently entered a new phase of getting colder,'' Marshal Sergeyev said to the Interfax news agency. ''The alliance is trying to talk to Russia over the problem of Chechnya from the position of force.''

At the same time, President Boris Yeltsin, in a telephone conversation with President Jacques Chirac of France, reminded the West that its criticism of Moscow's military campaign was not welcome.

''Yeltsin gave his critical assessment of several Western countries' approaches to the measures taken by the Russian Federation to eradicate bandits and international terrorism in Chechnya,'' said a statement issued by his press office.

Russia, which began its military drive into Chechnya more than three months ago, says its aim in the breakaway region is to destroy Islamic insurgents, who Moscow blames for a series of devastating apartment house bombs in the capital and other Russian cities.

The West has signaled increasing concern over the Russian offensive as reports of mistreatment of civilians accumulated.

But the war has proved highly popular among the Russian public, as shown in elections to the State Duma last Sunday, in which a pro-government party did surprisingly well.

Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have voiced confidence that the war will soon be over.

On Thursday, the Russian commander in Chechnya pledged in an interview to take full control over the separatist region within three weeks.

''Within a mere two weeks, three at most, we are planning to establish full control of the mountain areas of Chechnya,'' Colonel General Viktor Kazantsev, commander of forces in Chechnya, told Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the armed forces.

Opening a cabinet meeting in Moscow on Thursday, Mr. Putin said that ''almost all the territory of Chechnya is now controlled by the federal forces.''

The military is merely fighting ''pockets of resistance,'' he said.

Overnight, Russian troops crushed what the military called an attempt by rebels to break through to the neighboring region of Dagestan to carry out sabotage.

Approximately 40 Chechen militants clashed with Russian troops near the village of Zandak, on the border with Dagestan, but were beaten back, the Defense Ministry said.

Meanwhile, Interfax said the armed forces chief of staff had ordered an inquiry into reports that Russian troops massacred civilians in the Chechen village of Alkhan-Yurt earlier this month.

The Russian military said planes and artillery continued to pound rebel sites in the suburbs of Grozny and had struck at two bases in the south of Chechnya.

Marshal Sergeyev, on a two-day trip to Yugoslavia to discuss bilateral military cooperation and to visit the province of Kosovo, reiterated that Chechnya was Russia's internal problem.

''What we expect from the alliance is not the denunciation of the use of force but effective measures to cut off channels through which terrorists and bandits get aid,'' he said. ''If we do not resolve this problem on the Russian territory, tomorrow similar problems will arise most acutely in Central Asia, Europe and other regions on a much greater scale, because terrorists will believe that the world community is unable to confront them.''

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