Albright, Russian Peer Fail to Agree on Chechen War

Article excerpt

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. …