ACHKHOI-MARTAN, Russia (Reuters) - Russia captured a key stronghold in Chechnya, the military said Wednesday, just as Western governments weighed the risks of cutting aid from Moscow over the onslaught in the rebel territory.
Britain said Chechnya would have to be at the top of the agenda at a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers, including Russia, next week in Berlin.
A senior official in London said European Union leaders would discuss the Russian offensive at their summit in Helsinki Friday and might consider recalling their envoys from Moscow for consultations unless it eased its crackdown.
Britain, France, Italy and Germany all stepped up criticism of the Russian campaign, describing it as unacceptable and pointedly linking it to the West's financial lifeline to the Russian economy.
Russia's military early Wednesday captured the Chechen stronghold of Urus-Martan, a town that showed the most resistance of any major population center in the region so far.
The military again denied having issued a ''leave or die'' ultimatum to residents of the besieged Chechen capital Grozny.
Cook Says Moscow Is Listening
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the deadline appeared to have been eased after Western warnings, which he said had ''obviously been understood and heard'' in Moscow.
If Russia stuck to its Saturday deadline to civilians to leave the besieged Chechen capital, then Britain would ask the EU to consider the future of its help to Russia, Cook said.
Italian Prime Minister Massimo d'Alema said Europe might have to consider some form of economic pressure against Russia.
Like Cook, he linked Western concern over the war to the International Monetary Fund's decision, officially taken on economic grounds, to delay funds to Moscow.
''Europe...has many possibilities to exercise strong pressure on Russia. This pressure can be exercised with all means at our disposal, including economic pressure,'' D'Alema said.
''It is hard to see how any cash can flow to Russia in the current situation,'' said a German source in Berlin. Germany is Russia's largest creditor.
Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy said Tuesday Russia was crossing the line into potential crimes against humanity. Moscow's diplomatic isolation was underlined when three international organizations -- including the United Nations -- made a rare joint call urging it to respect human rights.
Rebels Pull Out Of Key Town
Despite the diplomatic flurry, Russian forces took Urus-Martan, 13 miles southwest of Grozny, fully under its control.
Interfax quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying 80 Chechen fighters were killed in the fighting while RIA news agency said one Russian soldier died and three were wounded.
The fall of the town seemed likely after a leading spokesman for the separatists said Urus-Martan had been abandoned in the face of the Russian advance.
''Chechen forces pulled out of Urus-Martan early this morning in line with an order from the military high command as part of the plan to regroup for further battle with the Russian aggressors,'' Udugov told Reuters by telephone.
Refugees from the town told Reuters in nearby Achkhoi-Martan that most of Urus-Martan's 30,000 residents had fled. They said probably only about 1,000 people remained in the town.
One woman, Aminat, 26, said she was trying to track her six-year-old daughter, who had been staying with her father in Urus-Martan.
''I just want to know if she is alive,'' said Aminat.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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