MOSCOW, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Russian forces were reported on Thursday to have sealed off the key Chechen town of Argun but a European rights envoy criticised Moscow's three-month offensive for violating the human rights of the civilian population.
Itar-Tass news agency quoted military officials outside Argun, which guards the eastern approaches to Chechen capital Grozny, as saying the town was surrounded and an operation to clear it of rebels would begin on Friday.
Grozny itself has been turned into a virtual fortress where about 5,000 guerrillas were reported by Interfax news agency to be based and roads and buildings were being mined.
The fall of Argun would be a major blow to the rebels as Russia seeks to complete the encirclement of Grozny after days of heavy artillery bombardments.
Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev said on Wednesday troops had blockaded the town and would capture it in two or three days. It would be the third major Chechnya town under Russian control.
Russia has vowed to destroy Moslem rebels and restore its control over a region it was forced to quit after a disastrous 1994-96 war against Chechen separatists.
Tass said Chechen fighters might have already left Argun along with civilians. But RIA news agency said Russian forces were battling Chechen fighters at various towns including around Argun and in the west of the region.
Resistance to Russia's advance and it attempts to surround Grozny has stiffened but it has managed to take several towns by holding talks with local leaders.
However, the campaign has continued to attract criticism for many civilian deaths and the plight of some 200,000 refugees.
HUMAN RIGHTS SAID VIOLATED
A commissioner from the Council of Europe, which monitors human rights, said after a visit to Chechnya and neighbouring regions that Russia was violating human rights.
"It is obvious there is a problem of human rights when there are 200,000 refugees, when there is so much suffering and panic...when one has lost absolutely everything," European Council human rights commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles told reporters after meeting Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
"That is why we must finish this war as soon as possible...to build peace, peace for all," Gil-Robles said.
Gil-Robles said he had visited northern Chechnya and the North Caucasus regions Dagestan and Ingushetia, where most of the refugees have fled.
"There is an enormous amount of work to be done but the most important thing to do...is to create peace," he said.
Russia had clearly made efforts to ease the plight of the refugees and restore normality to the regions it had taken back under its control, but more needed to be done as winter increased its grip on the war-ravaged region, Gil-Robles added.
People he had met told him they wanted a return to peace so they could go home and return to a normal life.
"This will be very difficult to do because judging by what I saw on the spot, life in Chechnya will be tough because they lack virtually everything in the towns that I saw," he said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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