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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK

World: Europe

Russia under pressure over Chechnya

Russia says the market was an illegal arms bazaar

Russia is coming under increasing international pressure to end its campaign in Chechnya after a blast in the region's capital killed and wounded scores of people.

Russia has given contradictory accounts of the violence in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Battle for the Caucasus
Military officials insisted that no civilians were killed and described the attack as a "special operation," but the prime minister denied Russian forces were responsible.

The incident has led to renewed international calls for a peaceful end to the crisis, with the USA, the UN and the European Union expressing their growing concern.

The BBC's Jonathan Charles: "Women and children are among the dead"
"We have raised our concerns repeatedly in the last months about the escalation and it is certainly troubling to see this kind of loss of life," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Calling for an end to the fighting, he said: "We will continue, regardless of this incident, to make clear to the Russians and to both parties that there is no way to find a purely military solution to this situation."

His concerns were echoed by the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In a statement Mr Annan expressed his "strong hope that special care is taken to avoid innocent civilian casualties in the current conflict and that the provisions of humanitarian law in armed conflict are respected".

The increasing bloodshed in Chechnya also dominated a top-level meeting between EU leaders and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, at which the two sides also discussed future relations between the Western bloc and Moscow.

Click here to see a map of the region

"We called on Russia to immediately enter negotiations to reach a political settlement of the conflict," said Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen after the meeting.

The EU also called on Russia to scale down its military operations and allow humanitarian agencies to step in with aid to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict.

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But they met with a brusque response from Mr Putin, who said Chechnya has become a criminal terrorist state and the Russian army had gone in to restore order.

At the meeting, Prime Minister Putin blamed the attack on rival local groups.

"It (the market) is one of the headquarters of the armed bandits and therefore the explosion was the result of a clash between rival formations or gangs," he told a news conference in Finland.

Chechen officials say a maternity hospital and a mosque were also hit by explosions at about the same time. In all, they say, at least 137 people died and about 260 others were injured.

[ image:  ]
The BBC's Angus Roxburgh says the city's arms bazaar was located next to the market place where ordinary people sold food and clothes.

The Chechens say 10 Russian missiles hit the city at about 1815 local time (1415 GMT) on Thursday. One military leader said he believed the strikes were carried out with cruise missiles launched from the neighbouring republic of Dagestan.

Russian forces are continuing to close in on Grozny and are believed to be well within range of the city to launch rocket attacks.

The Times' correspondent Anthony Loyd: These rockets have massive impacts
Chechen commanders have vowed to defeat any Russian troops sent into Grozny. The city was the scene of a humiliating defeat for Russian forces on 1 January 1995.

The Russian operation in Chechnya began three weeks ago when federal forces entered the territory with the aim of eliminating Chechen rebel fighters.

Russian ministers have repeatedly insisted that they are trying to limit civilian casualties.

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