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A Growing Humanitarian Disaster In Chechnya

(Washington, DC--October 13, 2000) Moscow has compounded the humanitarian disaster it helped to create by its military attacks on Chechen civilians by failing to provide assistance or even official recognition to the tens of thousands of refugees its attacks have driven from their homes.

Their situation is particularly dire now, as they face winter in the open or at best in camps in Ingushetia--where conditions are so terrible that many of them are likely to fall ill or even die. They are perhaps the lucky ones compared to those who remain in Chechnya where the war continues and who cannot receive any assistance at all.

That was the message of Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov, speaking to a Capitol Hill conference jointly sponsored by the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Minister Akhmadov was introduced by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR), through whose good offices the room was made available for this meeting. Senator Smith called for a ceasefire in Chechnya as soon as possible and urged the Russian government to negotiate with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to reach a political settlement.

Following Minister Akhmadov's presentation, Dawn Calabia of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees described the obstacles Russian officials have put in the way of international assistance to Chechens who have fled their homes. No international representatives are allowed to remain in Chechnya overnight, she said, a situation that severely limits their ability to provide aid.

Thomas Graham, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the conference that Russia's response to what it views as its "Chechen problem" was disproportionate and now threatens many of Russia's vital interests. As a result, he suggested, ever fewer Russians support the war, and ever more Russian officials are beginning to consider how they might reach a political settlement of the conflict.

Paul Goble, communications director at RFE/RL, noted that Western criticism of Russia's activities in Chechnya in the last two years has failed to change Russian policy. He suggested that this reflected changes in Russia under President Vladimir Putin as well as Russian success in convincing many that Chechnya is a humanitarian issue rather than a political one and that Western efforts to pressure Moscow could backfire and lead to an even more anti-Western Russian government.