- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

The situation in war-torn Chechnya is far from normal, contrary to official Russian statements, a leading human rights activist and member of the Russian parliament says.
"The war in Chechnya has become a typical guerrilla war, even though there are no open battles and war activities," lawmaker Sergei Kovalev said during a visit to Washington this week.
Mr. Kovalev criticized Moscow's peace plan for the breakaway republic, saying that a democratic referendum on a new Chechen constitution is not possible under the circumstances. Russian troops have clashed with separatists in Chechnya for more than eight years.
Russia has scheduled a March 23 referendum on the new constitution, which will reiterate Chechnya's status as part of Russia. It is to be followed by elections by the end of the year.
Human rights activists have accused Russian troops of atrocities against civilians.
Memorial, a private human rights group in Russia, said that during the first three weeks of January, 22 civilians were killed in Chechnya and 61 detained, 29 of whom have since disappeared.
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on Thursday, Mr. Kovalev said the discovery of mass graves in Chechnya indicates the operation of "death squads" throughout the republic.
Mr. Kovalev said bodies in those mass graves are typically blown up with explosives to complicate identification.
"I think that circumstances of the discovery of these corpses show the planned nature of the atrocities and exclude the possibility of accidents," he said.
Russian officials say civilian deaths in Chechnya are thoroughly investigated and accidental.
"It would be wrong to say that there is a war in Chechnya right now. There are single accidents, and there are groups rivaling and fighting each other," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said at the National Press Club during a recent visit to Washington.
Mr. Yastrzhembsky described the situation in Chechnya as stable and improving.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch calls the referendum "strange," in part because Russian troops occupying the region are allowed to vote.
Mr. Kovalev said the expression of free will is impossible in modern-day Chechnya.

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