- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

The United States and Russia faced off in a high-profile squabble over deteriorating humanitarian and human rights conditions in Chechnya Thursday after Moscow angrily objected to a meeting this week between U.S. officials and a leading Chechen politician.
Russia's foreign ministry labeled the meeting "totally unacceptable," even as a leading human rights group issued a new report detailing abuses by Russian troops battling separatists in the North Caucasus republic.
State Department human rights and refugee officials met Monday with Seilam Beshayev, the deputy chairman of the breakaway Chechen Republic's parliament. Unlike past contacts with Chechen officials, the meeting was conducted within the department itself.
Sensitive to any suggestion that Chechnya's independence was being accepted abroad, the Russian foreign ministry warned: "We can only consider the meeting with Beshayev as an openly unfriendly step toward Russia which cannot be justified by any internal political motives."
State Department spokesman James P. Rubin brushed aside the Russian complaint, saying Moscow's own crackdown on information about human rights abuses in Chechnya was to blame.
"If the Russian government wants to avoid people seeking out specific individuals to get information, they would be well advised to provide accreditation to journalists to go down there and tell the world what's going on in Chechnya," Mr. Rubin said.
In Moscow, a leading human rights monitoring group charged that Chechen men detained in the fighting were being tortured and abused by their Russian captors.
Human Rights Watch said interviews with refugees detailed "filtration camps" in which more than 1,000 Chechen males held after Russia's capture last week of the capital, Grozny, were being harshly questioned in search of ties to rebel fighters.
"Chechen filtration camps are centers of wholesale abuse and torture," Human Rights Watch's Malcolm Hawkes told reporters in Moscow.
"The abuse is going on behind closed doors," Mr. Hawkes said. "There is no access for the Red Cross, the United Nations, or international human rights monitoring groups such as ourselves."
Russian officials immediately denied the charges of torture.
But under increasing Western pressure over Russia's tactics in the 4-month-old conflict and the condition of some 250,000 refugees displaced by the fighting, acting Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was naming a top aide as his special representative on human rights in the region.
Vladimir Kalamanov, head of Russia's agency for internal refugees, will report to Mr. Putin on the human rights situation and humanitarian needs in Chechnya. Mr. Kalamanov's agency was already dealing with the needs of Chechen refugees driven into the neighboring Russian republic of Ingushetia in recent months.
At least one international mission is set to visit Moscow to discuss the situation in Chechnya. Alvaro Gil-Robles, human rights commissioner for the European Union's Council of Europe, arrives in Moscow Feb. 24 and will be allowed to travel to refugee camps in the south, Russian officials said.
In Chechnya itself, rebel forces continued their southward retreat in the face of air and artillery strikes by advancing Russian forces. With Grozny having fallen, the fighting has now moved to the rebel bases in the country's mountainous and inaccessible south.
While condemning the violence against civilians, the United States has been careful to say that it recognizes Russia's sovereignty over Chechnya.
The foreign minister of the Chechen Republic held a brief meeting with Clinton administration officials last month. The meeting was held at a Washington hotel, not at the State Department. Agreeing to meet with Mr. Beshayev this week inside the department itself drew Moscow's immediate wrath.
But Mr. Rubin said the meeting, held with officials of the department's human rights and refugee offices, did not mean the United States was moving closer to recognizing the Chechen state.
"We met in the department because it was only with officials on humanitarian and human rights issues, and we felt that to hold that meeting in our offices that deal with those matters was appropriate," Mr. Rubin said.
He said the Beshayev meeting did not "generate any dramatically new information," but underscored the administration's already deep concerns about civilian suffering in the war.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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