Blair intervenes on Chechen crisis

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR wrote to the Russian Premier Vladimir Putin yesterday amid mounting international concern about the humanitarian disaster unleashed by Moscow's military campaign to take control of Chechnya. Mr Blair protested about civilian casualties and the brutal treatment of fleeing refugees by Russian forces.

But a spokesman for Mr Blair said the Prime Minister did not see the situation as comparable to Kosovo, when Britain led Nato criticism of Serbia's policy of driving ethnic Albanians out of their homes and villages. Downing Street also ruled out withdrawing Western financial aid to bring pressure on Russia's leaders.

"Kosovo was a programme of racial genocide that Nato had to act to reverse," the spokesman said. This was not the situation in Chechnya.

Mr Blair's intervention came as Russia finally bowed to pressure and lifted border checkpoints to allow thousands of exhausted and terrified Chechen refugees to escape into neighbouring Ingushetia.

The Prime Minister held an emergency meeting with the Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, to discuss the conflict described on the front page of The Independent this week as the "dirty war the West chooses to ignore". Mr Blair, in his letter to the Russian premier, had called on Moscow to halt the assault on Grozny, the Chechen capital. He also appealed to the Russians to allow in humanitarian relief.

But all previous appeals, including an earlier one from Mr Blair this month, have fallen on deaf ears and Russian forces yesterday continued their advance on Grozny.

As the border opened, some 600 refugees an hour poured out of Chechnya. Many had been sleeping beside the road for two weeks. "I have taken all my relatives out of there and we are all going to Russia," said Tamara Grigoryevna, an ethnic Russian. "We won't be able to survive another war." As the refugees fled, Russian aircraft and artillery continued to bombard the heavily populated central plain of Chechnya around Grozny.

"The Russians are bombing roads and have already destroyed many bridges," said Kazbek Makhashev, the Chechen Deputy Prime Minister. "Often, it's impossible to take victims to hospitals."

The Russian decision finally to release the refugees was probably taken because of the imminent arrival of a United Nations mission, and growing criticism in the Russian media of the treatment of fleeing Chechens.

For the first time the Russians allowed men of military age out of the country along with women, children and old people. Ali Dudarov, the head of Ingush border guards, said the backlog of refugees would be cleared within a day.

Senior Russian officers have said they will not attack Grozny directly but the shelling and air strikes will continue until they believe they have won. Zara, a doctor in her forties, told reporters: "Grozny is hell. It's a nightmare. Two days ago four bombs hit a children's hospital, but the patients had been taken elsewhere because we had no power or medicines."

Russia wants to seal off Chechnya from the south where it shares a 50- mile mountainous border with Georgia. Their officers say the main Chechen supply routes cross the border and the Chechens have bases in Georgia, which the Georgians deny.

The refugees arriving yesterday in Ingushetia will find the meagre accommodation in the republic is already overflowing. A one-room flat can be rented for pounds 65 a month, but few of the refugees can afford this. The population of Ingushetia is only 300,000 and President Ruslan Aushev, the Ingush leader, says the same number of refugees will soon be in his country.

More Chechens are likely to flee as Russian forces close in on the second town of Gudermes, east of Grozny. Russian bombers are also targeting Chechnya's few remaining factories, such as cement and brick works.

Civilian casualties are also likely to grow. Viktor Baranets, a former colonel in the Russian army who is now a journalist, said Russian forces are squeezing the Chechens into a smaller space. He said the area still controlled by the Chechens is diminishing. "[Then] fighters will get mixed up with the peaceful population and there will be more innocent victims."