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U.S.: House Expresses 'Grave Concern' Over Chechnya

The U.S. House of Representatives has given approval to a stern resolution condemning Russia's military crackdown on Chechnya. The resolution calls for an end to the armed conflict and resumption of meaningful peace talks. It comes on the eve of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's participation in a summit held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where he is expected to face strong criticism about his government's Chechen policy.

Washington, 18 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. House of Representatives approved by a near unanimous vote a resolution expressing grave concern over the Chechen conflict and calling on both Russia and the breakaway North Caucasus republic to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

The measure, adopted on a 407-4 vote Tuesday night, said the Russian military offensive against Chechnya is particularly troubling in light of significant civilian casualties and internally displaced persons fleeing the hostilities.

Congressman Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican and co-sponsor of the resolution, said in a speech on the House floor that Congress is not questioning the territorial integrity of Russia or Moscow's right to fight terrorism. There were a series of deadly explosions in Russia earlier this year, which authorities blamed on Chechen extremists. The Grozny government has denied it had anything to do with the attacks.

"The Russian government is justified in rebuffing armed aggression against its territorial integrity. Moreover, one can certainly sympathize with Russia's frustration when unsolved bombings kill almost 300 persons in Russia. But this does not justify reactivating a war against a civilian population in Chechnya."

For several weeks now, Russian forces have been engaged in an air and artillery campaign against Chechnya, attacking Grozny and several other villages and towns.

The House resolution urged the Chechen authorities to use every appropriate means to deny extremist forces located in its territory a base of operation for armed incursions that threaten peace and stability in the region. And it called on both Russia and Chechnya to utilize the conflict prevention and crisis management capabilities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"The government of Russia and all parties are urged to enter into negotiations and to avail themselves to the capabilities of the OSCE which helped broker the end of the war in 1996. "

The resolution is in line with the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton's policies toward Russia regarding Chechnya.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said this week Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has discussed recently the Chechen situation with top Russian leaders. Rubin also called on Moscow to begin a dialogue with Chechen leaders, saying Washington does not believe that a purely military solution is possible.

"So far, we do not believe that Russia has begun such a serious dialogue."

Russian President Boris Yeltsin is expected today (Thursday) to face Western criticism of Russian military operations in Chechnya at a European security summit in Istanbul.

Yeltsin is attending the OSCE summit and has pledged to defend his government's handling of the conflict. Western critics say that thousands of civilians have been killed by indiscriminate Russian air attacks and more than 200,000 Chechens have been forced to flee their homes.

During House debate on the issue, Congressman Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, noted that the Russians claim to be targeting "bandits" -- not innocent civilians. Hoyer said the Russian policy is "not only murderous, but incredibly shortsighted." He said the conflict will strain the fabric of Russia's democratic development as well as the country's financial resources.

The U.S. Senate has also taken up the issue. In a recent letter to Clinton, several senators said that the indiscriminate attacks of Russian military forces on Chechnya are akin to atrocities committed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces against Kosovars.

Among the senators who signed the letter was Republican Jesse Helms, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The senators urged Clinton to ensure that the OSCE meetings galvanize the international consensus necessary to stop Russia's offensive against Chechnya.