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Friday, November 19, 1999 Published at 09:20 GMT

World: Europe

Russian concession on Chechnya

Russian soldiers load howitzers as they fire at rebel positions near Gudermes

A European security document due to be signed on Friday is to include a call for a political end to Russia's conflict in Chechnya, according to western officials.

Battle for the Caucasus
The official signing had been thrown into doubt when Russia's President Boris Yeltsin insisted there would be no outside interference in Chechnya.

BBC News' Chris Morris: Russians accuse the West of hypocrisy
But after a series of delicate negotiations, Moscow has agreed to give international organisations a political and humanitarian role in the Chechen conflict.

But no timetable has been agreed for any political talks and Moscow continues to describe the government of the breakaway republic as bandits and terrorists.

Even as the negotiations were taking place Russian troops were continuing to pound the Chechen capital, Grozny.

New CFE treaty

On Friday, a landmark security agreement was signed limiting conventional forces in Europe.

The updated version of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty sets lower ceilings for key armaments and troops stationed in militarily sensitive border regions.

The BBC's Rob Watson: "A day of conflict between East and West"
The new Charter for European Security, which includes the references to Chechnya is to be signed later in the day.

The ceremonial signing of the charter had been postponed because of the differences over Chechnya.

[ image:  ]
Russia had wanted no mention of Chechnya, which it regards as an internal matter, in the declaration.

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Michaelis said the final declaration, to be issued on Friday, would say a political solution to the Chechen problem was essential.

And Russia will express its readiness to invite the Norwegian chairman of the OSCE, Knut Vollebaek, to seek ways of ending the conflict.

No timetable for talks

But correspondents point out that the promised invitation does not guarantee he will be allowed to enter Chechnya itself - a constant demand of the west.

Nor is there any timetable for the start of political talks.

The BBC's Rob Watson, reporting from the summit, said although the gap between Russia and the West over Chechnya remained wide, there was no sign of a breakdown in relations.

In a separate development, Moscow has also granted the United Nations refugee agency access to refugees who have fled the fighting.

Chechen town surrenders

Russian troops have continued their push into the breakaway republic of Chechnya, taking another key town without a shot being fired.

Achkhoi-Martan, near the border with Ingushetia, was the second major Chechen town to surrender.

Last week, federal forces entered Chechnya's second city, Gudermes, without opposition.

Local officials were told they would be spared bombing and shelling if they ensured no guerrillas were hiding in the town.

Residents gave up a varied array of weaponry including machine guns and grenade launchers.

Russian troops had surrounded Achkhoi-Martan for days as they pressed towards the Chechen heartland that lies south of the capital, Grozny.

Meanwhile, French news agency AFP reported that some 170 people died in Russian missile strikes on Thursday.

Chechen officials told AFP that 70 died in air strikes on Grozny and another 100 died when five rockets struck Urus-Martan, 20km (12 miles) from the rebel capital.

The death toll could not be independently verified.

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