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Albright Decries Russia’s Use Of Excessive Force in Chechnya

By Kathy Lally

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began a visit to Moscow Monday by confronting her hosts over the war in Chechnya, accusing Russia of using excessive force and exacerbating its problems with the region by indiscriminately targeting civilians.

Igor S. Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, informed Albright that Moscow would fight Chechen terrorists as it saw fit, whether its methods were popular or not.

“We have made quite clear that we think that there has been an incredible amount of misery injected upon the civilian population of Chechnya,” Albright told a newsconference, “both militarily and also because of the creation of so many refugees.”

Albright agreed with Russia’s contention that it has been fighting terrorism, but she said that it has unnecessarily created a serious humanitarian situation.

“There has been excessive force used and civilians have been, I think, indiscriminately targeted in a way that has broadened and widened the problem,” she said Monday afternoon, after six hours of wide-ranging meetings with Ivanov.

It was an unusually strong public disagreement between two top diplomats. Albright’s tough talk was in dramatic contrast to the earlier war in Chechnya, from 1994 to 1996, when the United States largely ignored similar Russian tactics.

Then, however, U.S. officials were optimistic about the prospects for democracy and warm relations with Russia. Now, doubts have arisen about both, and the new mood was reflected in Albright’s comments.

The Russian foreign minister, who was sitting next to her at the joint news conference, argued that there was no agreed-upon way to fight terrorism.

“Unfortunately international practice has not yet produced a single formula for combating international terrorism,” Ivanov said. “In each case terrorism is manifested in its own way and has its specific features, and in each case one has to use the forms, perhaps even unpopular forms, which in the opinion of the leadership of the country are effective in solving the problem.”

Albright, however, argued that Russia’s problems with Chechnya would not be solved with military might. The territory harbors a volatile mixture of rebels seeking independence, along with terrorists and kidnappers -- and ordinary people desperately hoping for peace.

Russia is paying a high price for its refusal to negotiate with Chechnya, she said.

“I made it clear to the foreign minister that it was my sense that Russia was paying a toll internationally for its actions and was being increasingly isolated,” she said.

If such isolation occurred, Ivanov replied, it would only be temporary.

As they spoke, the bloody fighting continued. In reports from Chechnya, the Russian side asserted it had driven Chechen snipers out of high-rise apartment buildings they have occupied around the strategic Minutka Square in the capital, Grozny.

Chechens fighters, however, insisted that they remained in control of the square.

Russia has limited media access to the battlefield, carefully controlling reporters’ movements.

Monday, officials said that they were investigating a reporter for Radio Liberty, financed by the U.S. government.

Russian forces in Chechnya held the reporter, Andrei Babitsky, for several days before they revealed that they had detained him. Officials said Monday that the soldiers who detained him suspected Babitsky of helping enemy forces.

Russia’s general prosecutor plans to travel to Chechnya Tuesday or Wednesday to investigate the situation personally.

Commenting on the arrest, Albright said, “freedom of the press is very important in this situation as in others.”