Delegates from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are continuing their look at human rights conditions in Chechnya with a visit today to a refugee camp in neighboring Ingushetia. The head of the delegation made positive remarks about the situation yesterday after visiting a tent camp in Chechnya. But as RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports, the investigation comes amid fresh accusations by the West that Russian troops continue to violate the human rights of Chechen civilians.
Prague, 15 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It has been two years since the last human rights investigation in Chechnya by delegates from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
A statement from the PACE says its team is now in the region because of concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
The delegates conclude their three-day mission today with a visit to the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia. Their findings are expected to be presented during the week of 21-25 January in a discussion of Chechnya by the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg.
Tadeusz Iwinski, who heads the PACE commission on refugees, said yesterday that he has noticed a marked change in the region since his last visit two years ago. Iwinski says he is no longer hearing words of hatred about Russian soldiers from Chechen refugees and other civilians he meets. Iwinski made the comment after he and other PACE delegates visited a refugee camp in Chechnya.
Correspondents who accompanied yesterday's tour say refugees told the European delegates that they had fled their homes because of continued fighting, restrictions on travel, and violations of human rights in Chechnya.
Iwinski said he is confident from his meetings with refugees that their mood is changing for the better. Most, he said, simply want to go back to what is left of their homes and rebuild their lives. He said they are simply asking for the creation of conditions that would allow their return.
Two years ago, when Iwinski last visited the Northern Caucasus, many of the refugees and civilians he spoke to were recent witnesses of Russia's military assault on Chechnya -- including a bloody battle for control of Grozny. Those that Iwinski met yesterday are now in the midst of their third winter as refugees -- and are still living in tents.
But Stanislav Ilyasov, the prime minister in Chechnya's Moscow-appointed government, promised Iwinski an end to tent camps for refugees after this winter.
Ilyasov said all refugees still living in tents will be moved to temporary hostels that are being prepared in Grozny, Gudermes, Argun, and Sernovodsk. Ilyasov said the transfers should begin "within weeks."
Today's agenda for the European delegates includes a visit to one of the largest Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia. The delegates are to visit a camp where some 6,000 Chechen refugees also are facing their third winter in tents.
The delegation is to meet Ingushetia's acting president, Akhmet Malsagov, as well as officials from several of that republic's ministries and aid agencies.
The PACE delegates are being accompanied by a group of deputies from Russia's lower house of parliament -- the State Duma. Russian officials are keen to convince the European delegates that allegations of human rights abuses in Chechnya are exaggerations.
In the past week, the U.S. State Department issued its strongest criticism of alleged human rights violations in Chechnya since the September terrorist attacks in the U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher acknowledged that Russian troops in the region face terrorists with ties to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. But he said Moscow has failed to pursue its initial contacts with Chechen separatists to work out a political solution to the crisis.
Boucher said the current situation can only produce an environment that contributes to terrorism: "The latest information on Russian operations in Chechnya indicates a continuation of human rights violations and the use of overwhelming force against civilian targets."
Concerns about the behavior of Russian troops in Chechnya also have been raised by politicians and activists in France ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's official visit there today. The visit is widely seen as confirmation of a new warmth in relations between France and Russia.
But France's Green Party candidate for president, Noel Mamere, denounced President Jacques Chirac for extending the invitation to Putin.
In a statement, Mamere said it is inappropriate for Putin to be received in Paris with great ceremony at a time when "death squads are continuing massacres in Chechnya with unheard-of violence."
Mamere accused Russia of carrying out the war in Chechnya under a "fallacious pretext of a battle against terrorism." Referring to the Russian president as "Putin the Bloodthirsty," Mamere also said "the real terrorism is the war that Moscow is leading in Chechnya."
The Green Party, which is part of France's governing coalition, said Mamere will take part in a demonstration today by the French Chechnya Committee against Putin's visit.
There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin to Mamere's criticisms. But the Kremlin has rejected the recent accusations from Washington that Russia is using excessive force against Chechen civilians.
A Kremlin spokesman says Boucher's remarks were probably based on unverified information published in U.S. newspapers. He said Russia's experiences in Chechnya and the experiences of the United States in Afghanistan show how difficult it can be to hunt down terrorists without making civilians suffer. He said Russia and the U.S. are seeking to avoid civilian casualties.
Meanwhile, Russian military officials have doused any hope among Chechen civilians for a reduced presence of federal troops in the republic. Russian commanders say there are no plans to withdraw troops within the next year.
As the PACE delegates complete their investigation today, authorities in Moscow are preparing for a visit starting today by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers.
Lubbers' talks with senior Russian government officials also are expected to focus on the humanitarian situation in Chechnya and Ingushetia.