- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2000

MOSCOW Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright yesterday appeared to "agree to disagree" with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov about the Chechen conflict as conflicting reports about Russian military progress in the breakaway republic mounted.

While stressing U.S. criticism of the civilian cost of Russia's attempts to subdue the Chechens, Mrs. Albright devoted far more time in her discussions with the Russian foreign minister to bilateral arms-control issues.

However, in public comments Mrs. Albright accused Russia of inflicting "an incredible amount of misery" on civilians in Chechnya by targeting them indiscriminately and forcing them from their homes.

Russian officials yesterday said their forces had pushed into a key square in the capital of rebel Chechnya after more than a week of intense battles with snipers firing from high-rise buildings.

Sergei Yastrzembsky, acting President Vladimir Putin's spokesman for the Chechnya war, said federal forces were in control of a third of Grozny's Minutka Square in the afternoon, but Russian television reports later said the square was completely under their control.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment last night, and Russia previously has made premature claims of controlling sections of Grozny.

Any Russian advance into the square could be a significant boost to the campaign to take the capital.

Meanwhile, a senior Taleban commander told the Associated Press in the Afghan capital, Kabul, that a group of reinforcements went to Chechnya about 20 days ago. The Taleban militia, which controls 90 percent of Afghanistan, had previously denied Russian allegations that the regime was sending fighters to Chechnya. The commander spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the face of Western criticism, Russia has justified its nearly five-month-long ground assault in Chechnya as necessary to wipe out Islamic militants it identifies as terrorists. Russian officials have often cited a Taleban connection.

"No one questions Russia's right to combat insurgency and terrorism in its borders, but the war in Chechnya has brought a tragic cost in human lives and a high cost to Russia's world standing," Mrs. Albright said, on the first day of a three-day visit. "It has cast a long international shadow."

Mr. Ivanov disagreed.

"I think it is hardly fair to talk about isolation and in any case if there is any isolation, it is temporary," he said.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin dismissed the agree-to-disagree characterization of the exchanges between the two diplomats about Chechnya.

But he acknowledged to reporters that while the conflict was casting a cloud over Mrs. Albright's talks in Moscow that "doesn't mean we are not going to work on the national security issues of the United States."

Both U.S. and Russian officials hope that attention will shift away from Chechnya during the second day of Mrs. Albright's trip, which is devoted to a round of multilateral Middle East peace talks. No breakthroughs are expected from the negotiations.

Mrs. Albright's visit is the first by a senior U.S. official since Boris Yeltsin's abrupt New Year's Eve resignation.

In a gesture of cooperation despite their differences, Mrs. Albright and Mr. Ivanov took a break while tackling their heavy agenda to sign an agreement designed to tighten controls on technology used in launching U.S. satellites from Russian space stations.

However, the hopes of the United States that the Russian parliament will soon ratify the START II nuclear disarmament treaty may be misplaced. While Mr. Putin has indicated he wants to see the treaty passed speedily, the Duma's Communist speaker, Gennady Seleznyov, who was re-elected with Mr. Putin's backing, has warned there will be no quick passage for the accord.

Despite Mrs. Albright's concentration on arms-control issues, she made no breakthroughs in her talks with Mr. Ivanov. Mr. Rubin noted that differences dividing Washington and Moscow over changes to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty were "not narrowed."

For the past year, the Russians have rebuffed U.S. efforts to revise the accord while denouncing American plans to develop and maybe deploy a limited national missile defense.

Just last week, talks between John Holum and Yuri Kapralov, the chief U.S. and Russian ABM negotiators, broke up with no progress having been made. Russian defense spokesmen have frequently dubbed the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of nuclear deterrence and warned that deployment of a U.S. national missile defense system could trigger a new Cold War.

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