LISBON, Portugal (Reuters) - European Union ministers met Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov Thursday determined to secure a firm commitment from Moscow to allow international rights monitors extensive access to Chechnya.
With the bitter fighting in the troubled Caucasian province seemingly nearing an end, EU officials said human rights would be a key issue during two days of talks which Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will join Friday.
''That is what we are going to press for and if we achieve it will be very positive,'' a EU spokesman told Reuters.
Signs of a greater openness by Moscow to the presence of international observers emerged Wednesday with EU security chief Javier Solana, who will be attending the talks, saying Russia would allow foreigners from the Council of Europe to join its humanitarian mission in Chechnya.
Speaking in Brussels before leaving for Lisbon, Solana said he had been told by Council of Europe envoy Alvaro Gil-Robles that Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin was ready to accept some foreign monitors.
''This may represent a positive movement,'' he said.
But the EU spokesman cautioned that the Russians had expressed such willingness in the past only to raise obstacles to its implementation, such as the difficulties of guaranteeing the monitors' safety.
''But now with the situation there apparently under better control, there may be a change,'' he said.
Isolated Pockets Of Resistance
Russian commanders say that the military campaign against separatist fighters in the Caucasian province is virtually over with resistance limited to a few isolated pockets in the mountains of the south.
The fierceness of the five-month Russian assault brought angry protests from Western governments which have accused Moscow of indiscriminate violence against civilians.
The West has been pressing for a negotiated settlement to the fighting in the breakaway province.
Russia has strongly rejected the criticism, accusing Western media of bias -- a charge which gained some support when German television news footage purporting to show summary executions of Chechen fighters and civilians turned out to be false.
The EU, represented by Portugal's Foreign Minister Jaime Gama, his French counterpart Hubert Vedrine, Solana and the European Commission's external relations commissioner Chris Patten, will be anxious to balance pressure over Chechnya with progress on better relations with Moscow.
NATO recently resumed formal contacts with Russia that had been frozen since the alliance's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last summer aimed at halting ethnic cleansing in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
The continued presence of Russia peacekeepers in Kosovo will be on the agenda, along with the Middle East and the European Union's plans to create a rapid reaction security force, officials said.
Albright was due to arrive later Thursday for trilateral talks Friday, the first such three-way encounter between the U.S., Russia and the European Union.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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