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U.S. Helsinki Commission Concerned about Chechnya

Washington, July 11 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. official says if the situation in Chechnya continues to deteriorate, the issue will be added to the discussion agenda of U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin when they meet in Moscow next week.

Ambassador James Collins, the U.S. State Department's top diplomat for Russia and the other newly independent states, said Wednesday that "Chechnya will be raised if necessary and appropriate" when Gore travels to Moscow for the semi-annual meeting of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission beginning on Monday.

Collins said "the United States is making clear at every possible occasion, at the most senior political levels, the vital importance of ending the conflict and getting a political settlement in place."

He said the revival this week of Russian artillery shelling and aerial bombardment of Chechen villages is, in Collins' words "a very distressing, disturbing and discouraging development."

Collins made the comments in testimony before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), also known as the Helsinki Commission.

Questions about Chechnya dominated the Commission's inquiry into the situation in Russia after the recent presidential elections there.

Commission chairman Christopher Smith, a Republican congressman from the state of New Jersey, deplored the breakdown of the peace process and renewed violence in Chechnya.

Another panel member, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia), said Gore and President Bill Clinton, as well as Secretary of State Warren Christopher should stop raising the issue privately with the Russian government and make strong statements in public, condemning human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Wolf said he believes that every time a senior U.S. official goes to Moscow and fails to publicly speak out against human rights abuses in Chechnya, Russians are emboldened to intensify military actions against the Chechens.

Wolf said that instead of having telephone conversations back and forth with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, top U.S. officials should, in his words "forcefully, publicly speak out (on Chechnya) to be the beacon...with regard to human rights and democracy."

Other CSCE Commission members, including Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said they support Wolf's views.

But Collins rejected the criticism, saying the U.S. State Department consistently and frequently makes public statements against human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Earlier this week, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns also expressed concern at the renewed violence. He said the U.S. urges Russians and Chechens to refrain from actions that would worsen the situation, and calls on them to end the fighting and return to peace negotiations.