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Chechnya: President Clinton Expresses Increasing Concern To Yeltsin

Washington, 22 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has sent a message to Russian President Boris Yeltsin to emphasize America's intensifying concern over the menacing situation in the Chechen capital Grozny.

"President Clinton has been deeply concerned about the escalation of fighting in and around Grozny... and about threats of use of force against Grozny that could endanger the lives of tens of thousands of civilians," White House spokesman Michael Mccurry said Wednesday.

Clinton conveyed his concern in the message which was sent to Yeltsin Wednesday, said Mccurry. There has been no response yet from the Kremlin. Mccurry gave no other details.

U.S. officials told an RFE/RL correspondent in Washington that Clinton's letter appealed to Yeltsin to avoid actions in Grozny that might cause more civilian deaths. It urged a return to the June 10 ceasefire between Russian forces and the Chechen separatists.

The U.S. State Department has been making similar statements almost daily this month. But saying it from the White House magnifies and amplifies the diplomatic signal.

Mccurry repeated the longstanding U.S. view that prolonged fighting will only endanger civilians and that a lasting resolution of the conflict with Chechen separatists can only be achieved through negotiations.

He said the United States is encouraged that General Alexander Lebed, Yeltsin's security chief and top negotiator on Chechnya, returned to the region.

Lebed told reporters Wednesday night after a meeting with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Mashkadov, that they have agreed on a ceasefire and will continue talks today to settle the mechanics of the truce.

At the U.S. State Department, spokesman Glyn Davies said the United States wishes Lebed well and hopes means can be found to achieve a durable cease-fire.

"It is frightening to think about any kind of a generalized attack on the city of Grozny when you have at least 50,000 and probably many more civilians, Russians and Chechens, still in the city," said Davies.

Some estimates have put the number of civilians remaining in Grozny as high as 250,000. But tens of thousands of people are expected to try and flee the city ahead of a threatened Russian attack, in addition to more than 40,000 new refugees this week.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) said in Rome yesterday that it has asked the United States to begin an immediate airlift of food for the Chechen refugees.

The WFP said it needs an estimated 140,000 emergency food rations. The State Department says it is looking into the request.

Fears of renewed massive bombing heightened with the return to Grozny of General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov to assume command of Russian forces. He has criticized peace negotiations and urged an all-out offensive against the separatists.

The situation has prompted messages of concern from several European governments, including Italy and the five Scandinavian countries.

In the United States, White House and State Department spokesmen deflected reporters' questions about who is in charge of the Chechen war in Russia, should one believe Lebed or Tikhomirov, whether it is appropriate for Yeltsin to remain on vacation during the Chechen crisis, and whether his health permits him still to control the Russian government.

Mccurry said only that the United States continues to communicate "both with the Russian president and directly with the Russian prime minister" and maintains a variety of routine lower level contacts with the Russian government.

Some observers in Washington say they doubt that Clinton's message to Yeltsin will have much resonance. They recall a similar pattern of ceasefires, ultimatums and bombings starting in 1994 when Yeltsin was also absent from public view having surgery on his nose, and the United States was as deeply concerned as it is now.