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Saturday, 19 February, 2000, 13:01 GMT
Row over Chechnya 'atrocities'

Minutka Square What's left of Grozny's Minutka Square

The United States and Russia have clashed over allegations of human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya.

Battle for the Caucasus
Russia's Foreign Ministry accused US State Department spokesman James Rubin of "information terrorism" after he urged Moscow to conduct a thorough investigation into what he called "credible reports" of civilian killings in the republic.

A strongly-worded statement said his remarks at a Thursday briefing were "absolutely unacceptable, both in form and content".

This is tantamount to co-operating in a campaign of information terrorism.
Russian Foreign Ministry
Washington rejected the charge as "incomprehensible and ludicrous".

"Mr Rubin's statements, which reflect US Government policy, called upon the Russian Government to investigate credible allegations of human rights violations," the State Department said.

The US also demanded an investigation into the disappearance of reporter Andrei Babitsky after he was detained by Russian forces who later traded him in a prisoner swap with Chechens.

Human rights

The sharp exchange over Chechnya came at a time when Russia and the US are taking public steps to thaw relations that have been at their iciest since the Cold War.

Mined building Russians blow up a mined building in Grozny
On Thursday, Russia denounced talks in Washington between a visiting Chechen representative and State Department officials.

The latest spat came amid new reports from human rights groups that Russian forces in Chechnya beat, raped and summarily executed civilians suspected of aiding the separatists.

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said 400 people had been taken to detention centres from the Chechen capital, Grozny, alone.

We have consistently called upon all sides to take care to protect innocent civilians.
State Department
Throughout the Chechen campaign, Russia has been accused of human rights abuses and of using excess force.

It has denied the allegations, and appointed a special envoy, Vladimir Kalamanov, to investigate them.

But speaking to Moscow Echo radio, Mr Kalamanov said: "It is impossible to say that human rights have been completely respected in Chechnya."

Click here for map

At the same time as it said it would investigate reports of violations, Moscow announced plans to put a swift end to rebel resistance.

Russia soldiers Russia: Taking the fight into the mountains
Officers believe a decisive victory is within sight.

Colonel-General Valery Manilov, the first deputy chief of the armed forces' general staff, told a news conference there was no firm deadline for the military operation to end, but if everything went according to plan it would be over in a month.

Fierce fighting

The headquarters of the Russian forces in the North Caucasus said on Saturday that their aircraft had flown more than 150 combat missions over Chechnya in the past 24 hours, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

It said planes and helicopter gunships targeted Argun and Vedeno districts east and southeast of Groznyy, as well as the Itum-Kale District and the Vedeno gorge in the south of the republic.

The Russians said a number of rebel vehicles, anti-aircraft installations and communication facilities and a relay transmitter were destroyed.

Meanwhile, at least 15 Russian paratroopers were killed when the helicopter in which they were travelling was shot down by Chechen fighters.

Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo described the incident as "tragic".

As many as 7,000 Chechen fighters are holed up in the rugged remote south of the republic, according to Moscow, where the inaccessible terrain allowed them to launch deadly counter-attacks against Russian forces in the 1994-96 war.

Soldier and woman A Russian soldier checks a Chechen's papers
They say they have been carrying out successful hit-and-run strikes on Russian-held villages near their mountain bases and are regrouping for further assaults.

Russian reports said that prominent Chechen rebel commander, Salman Raduyev, had been killed in fighting on Friday.

Grozny itself was being sealed off, the Russians said, to prevent possible rebel attempts to infiltrate it.

No date was set for the city to be re-opened.

About 25,000 residents have fled Grozny since the fighting began five months ago.

But the fate of thousands of civilians, said to be too weak to escape from the city, remains unclear.

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See also:
18 Feb 00 |  Europe
Russia to seal Grozny
16 Feb 00 |  Europe
Russia prepares for Chechen strike
15 Feb 00 |  Europe
Russians urged to stop 'vacuum' bombings
14 Feb 00 |  Europe
Fighting in key Chechen gorge
11 Feb 00 |  Europe
Call for Grozny 'executions' probe

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