Russia

G8 members demand ceasefire in Chechnya

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By Kevin Liffey

BERLIN, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Big-power foreign ministers meeting in the Group of Eight (G8) demanded on Friday that fellow member Russia call an immediate halt to its military onslaught on the rebel territory of Chechnya.

But the meeting in Berlin made no mention of concrete sanctions, and there was no sign of any change of course from Russia, accused by the West of failing to seek a political solution and having little regard for civilian casualties.

"I cannot pretend that I leave here with any confidence that there will be an immediate end to the fighting in Chechnya," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told journalists as reports came in that bombardment of the capital Grozny had intensified.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said after the meeting that the other seven members of the G8 had directed a demanded for an immediate, lasting ceasefire throughout Chechnya at Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

The G8 also includes Japan, France, Britain, Italy and the United States.

"The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by indiscriminately fighting against cities and the whole population," Fischer said.

FISCHER SAYS WAR SERIOUS THREAT

"This war is a serious threat to partnership and cooperation between Russia and all of us," he said, adding it could only lead to an extension of the broader Chechen conflict.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters: "What I think has been evident at this meeting, frankly, is that the Russians, through their actions, are self-isolating from the rest of the international community."

While Ivanov did not attend the news conference, he later rejected the accusation that Moscow was deliberately isolating itself on Chechnya.

"On some issues our opinions coincide, on others they diverge, but what's important is that this issue should not lead to us growing apart," he told reporters, adding: "I never felt isolated from my colleagues in the Group of Eight."

Earlier, the Russian foreign minister was quoted by the German Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper as saying the West should not "interfere in internal affairs" and that what Moscow calls an "anti-terrorist" operation could have been completed sooner if Moscow had paid less regard to civilians.

He denied there had been massive civilian casualties, or the heavy Russian losses witnessed on Wednesday by reporters in the Chechen capital Grozny. "There has been no attempt to storm Grozny, nor will there be one," he said.

BOMBING INTENSIFIES

A Reuters correspondent reported from Grozny that intense bombardment had resumed in the past 24 hours, having previously eased off to give civilians a better chance of leaving.

Knut Vollebaek, Norwegian foreign minister and chairman of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called for a ceasefire around Grozny as he reported to the G8 on his visit to Chechnya which ended on Thursday.

"We urgently need a ceasefire, otherwise there will be a bloodbath...because there will be major fighting. Grozny will not fall easily," he told a news conference.

He said Russian Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu had told him there were 45,000 civilians still in Grozny.

Both the West and Chechnya want the OSCE to play a mediating role, and Vollebaek proposed an international conference grouping the regional conflicts in the northern Caucasus.

But, after hearing Ivanov at the meeting, he told reporters: "There is no willingness, as I see it, for the Russian side to include the international community in this process."

Ivanov insisted in the interview that Moscow still had an effective working relationship with the West. He singled out Germany and the "active dialogue" with Washington "which is not broken off even in very dramatic times".

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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