Washington, 18 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A leading Russian human rights activist says Moscow's policy toward Chechnya is the most urgent issue facing the international community today.The assessment was made last night by Sergei Kovalyev, a deputy of the Russian state Duma, at a briefing held at RFE/RL in Washington. Kovalyev said the Russian military offensive against the breakaway republic is "close to genocide" because of high civilian casualties. He also said the war has given birth to the rapid political rise of acting President Vladimir Putin.
Kovalyev, who spent 10 years in the Soviet gulag for his dissident activities, said he believes gradually increasing Western pressure on Moscow might have softened Russia's initial stand on Chechnya.
He predicted the Chechen conflict is likely to be transformed into an Afghan-type mini-guerrilla warfare that will last for years. He said Russia cannot possibly win such a guerrilla war.
Acting President Vladimir Putin appointed an official to safeguard human rights in Chechnya. Amnesty International says the naming of Vladimir Kalamanov was unlikely to result in "investigations and prosecutions" of Russian human rights violations there. It called the appointment a "public relations exercise."
Human Rights Watch says allegations of torture and indiscriminate bombing by Russian forces should be investigated as war crimes.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin called on Russia to conduct a full, comprehensive and transparent investigation of alleged atrocities in Chechnya.
Meanwhile the Russian military is set today to seal off Grozny out of fears Chechen rebels might sneak into the city along with residents.
Yesterday, presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky did not give a date for re-opening Grozny. It is not clear how many civilians remain in the Chechen capital but they are thought to number in the thousands.
Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered an urgent census to be carried out in the Chechen capital Grozny and other major cities in the breakaway republic.
Shoigu says Russia cannot coordinate a humanitarian aid program for Chechen civilians unless it counts their number. Shoigu said a government commission should start assessing the extent of damage in Grozny in the next few days, when passports will be issued to all residents. Shoigu is due to travel to Grozny today to prepare a humanitarian aid program to submit to the Russian government.