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U.S. Criticism Of Chechens Grows Stronger With Hostage Crisis

Washington, Jan. 17 (RFE/RL) - Senior U.S. and Russian officials are scheduled to meet in Bonn today to discuss U.S.-Russian relations and the Chechnya conflict.

The U.S. State Department says that given this week's developments, Chechnya tops the U.S. agenda. Issues surrounding the Dageston hostage crisis will be discussed by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgiy Mamedov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

The State Department says Secretary of State Warren Christopher also plans to raise the Chechnya issue in his first substantive talks with Russia's new Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov to take place in Europe next month.

The United States is disturbed by the Chechnya conflict and has criticized both sides but Tuesday appeared to find more offense with Chechen separatists than the Russians.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry said hostage-taking is an unjustifiable terrorist tactic.

However, he expressed understanding for President Boris Yeltsin's position in dealing with the breakaway Chechnya republic, taking issue only with Russia's use of force as a means of resolving the conflict.

McCurry said the U.S. believes the use of military force only deepens the conflict and lessens the possibility of finding a peaceful solution to some legitimate Chechen concerns. He said the U.S. is "troubled and concerned" at developments of the past few days.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns used harsher language, condemning Chechen hostage-taking as "reprehensible" and "terrorism, pure and simple."

He said Chechen separatists deserve "severe criticism" for taking thousands of people hostage, using women and children as human shields and threatening the lives of civilians. He said all remaining captives should be released.

Burns warned Chechen separatists "to rethink their tactics because they are losing support in the international community."

He called on both Russians and Chechens to end the fighting, exercise restraint and start negotiating. "We are urging them to negotiate because we do not believe a military solution can be achieved by either side in Chechnya," Burns said.

He said the hostage-taking and the Russian response risk broadening the conflict and escalating the danger to civilians.

Even as burns spoke, America's fears of a spreading conflict were being realized with the news that gunmen, supporting Chechen separatists, had seized a ship in the Turkish Black Sea port of Trabzon. At least 30 more hostages also were seized yesterday at a power plant near the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The U.S. position on Chechnya has been consistent since the war began 13 months ago. Washington regards Chechnya as an integral part of the Russian Federation. While acknowledging that some Chechen concerns are legitimate, U.S. officials continue to urge peaceful negotiations.

The White House and State Department made similar declarations yesterday, again calling for restraint, an end to the fighting and a peaceful solution. But some change and differentiation is detectable.

When Russian armed forces began bombarding Grozny in December 1994, killing thousands of civilians, U.S. statements appeared somewhat more sympathetic to the Chechen population.

Now, after the fourth hostage incident initiated by Chechen separatists or their sympathizers, the U.S. is more critical of the Chechen side than it is of the Russians.

Burns said yesterday that the immediate concern of the U.S. and the international community is to end the fighting and save civilian lives. He says that when the U.S. and the international community see force being used that "risks unduly the lives of innocent civilians, we have the responsibility to speak out."

The understanding expressed by the White House for Yeltsin's "difficulties" in dealing with the Chechen crisis is seen by some Washington analysts as a concession to Russia's presidential election politics. U.S. officials know that as the current election campaign begins, Yeltsin needs to look decisively in control. In this light, a military solution appears more useful than pursuit of a negotiated settlement.

The U.S. has been urging Russians and Chechens to seek a negotiated solution through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But Burns admits "there is no sign that either side is heeding our advice."