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U.S.: Washington Cautions Russia on Chechnya

As Russian warplanes continue bombing targets in Chechnya, the United States warns that further military escalation could threaten the stability of Northern Caucasus region. RFE/RL's Frank T. Csongos reports from Washington.

Washington, 30 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is cautioning Russia to think twice before further escalating military operations against Islamic fighters in Chechnya.

State Department spokesman James Foley said Wednesday that while Washington supports the territorial integrity of Russia and its right to combat terrorism, stepping up the fight against targets in the breakaway republic poses dangers.

"We believe that any resumption of general hostilities in Chechnya would further threaten stability in the entire North Caucasus region."

Foley discussed at length at the department's daily news briefing how the U.S. sees the latest developments concerning Chechnya.

The independence-minded republic has been under Russian aerial bombardment for a week. Russian officials say the strikes are aimed at destroying Chechnya-based militants. They are accused by Moscow of having twice invaded neighboring Dagestan and of organizing bomb explosions in Russia in recent weeks that killed more than 300 people.

"First of all, we support the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. Second, we have condemned acts of violence against lawful authority that we've been seeing recent in Dagestan. Thirdly, we have complete sympathy for and solidarity with the Russian people who have suffered acts of terrorism in recent days and weeks, and we want to help the Russians deal with it. Fourth, we understand that insofar as they face terrorist and military challenges, that there can be military responses and security responses to those challenges." Foley warned, however, that Russian military operations - especially introducing ground troops -- could complicate attempts to start a dialogue between Grozny and Moscow concerning Russian complaints that Islamist fighters have used Chechnya to attack Dagestan.

"Where our concern begins has to do with the seeming escalation of the last few days, characterized both by some of the aerial bombardments and also some of the talk that we've seen about the possibility of a ground invasion. And I think there it's not really so much a question of the United States -- I don't know if you used the word "pressure" -- but it's not really a question of pressure on the Russian authorities, it's a question of stating our view as to what is in the interest of all parties, including the Russian Federation, because this obviously is a situation that could escalate further."

Russian officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have said a full-scale land operation in Chechnya is one of several military options under consideration to dislodge Islamic militants hiding in the republic.

Foley said the United States does not believe that the rebels who infiltrated Dagestan from Chechnya answer to the central authority there.

He said Russia should remember that just a few years ago its troops were bogged down figthing Chechen rebels.

Commenting about Russian warplanes bombing targets in Chechnya, Foley said the U.S. believes that, in addition to rebel outposts, civilians also have been hit.