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Chechnya onslaught may block arms treaty

RUSSIA AND the West are heading for a clash over Chechnya at this week's showpiece security summit in Turkey, which could block the signature of an agreement limiting conventional military forces across the entire territories of Nato and the former Warsaw Pact.

As EU foreign ministers condemned Moscow's "disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force" against the rebel province yesterday, President Boris Yeltsin said he would go to Istanbul to tell the world Russia would not halt its offensive until victory had been achieved.

Nato and the West had "no right to criticise us for exterminating bandits and murderers who cut off the heads of their victims, and terrorists on our territory", Mr Yeltsin said in an appearance at the Kremlin after a month out of public view. "We won't stop as long as a single terrorist remains on our territory."

As he spoke, thousands more refugees tried to leave Chechnya, while Russian bombers and artillery bombarded villages south-west of Grozny for the fifth successive day. The region now resembled a wasteland, said refugees as they crossed the republic's western border into Ingushetia.

Though a build-up of the rhetoric was to be expected ahead of the summit of the 54-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which starts on Thursday, Western outrage at Russia's brutal onslaught has been growing - to the point where the President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, said yesterday he would boycott the meeting in protest.

A conference designed to turn the page on a fraught year that included war in Kosovo and a worsening of relations between Russia and the West now seems likely to push those relations to their lowest point since the Cold War. Officially, the plan is still to sign two documents: a European security charter defining the principles of states' behaviour, and - more importantly - an updated Conventional Forces In Europe (CFE) treaty, replacing a CFE that reflects the old East-West bloc structure of Europe.

But Chechnya risks making a mockery of both.

Russia's attack against a part of its sovereign territory is in blatant contradiction of the charter's provision that countries treat their own populations as they do their neighbours, while its build-up of forces against Chechnya is in breach of the limits set by both the old and the new CFE agreements.

The previous one, dating from 1990, allowed Russia a total of 1,380 armoured combat vehicles on its southern flank. That figure goes up to 2,140 under the pact to be signed this week, "but we're sure the Kremlin is well over this figure now", British officials say.

The only way out of the impasse - barring an unforeseen Russian turnaround on Chechnya - could be separate deals whereby Moscow agrees to speed up the withdrawal of its troops from Moldova and from Georgia. Its military presence in Georgia, in particular, reinforces the suspicion that the Kremlin wants to keep not just Chechnya, but the entire Caucasus region firmly under its thumb. "If Russia can do a deal with the Georgians and Moldovans, which they've been pressing for and we want, then this could be a factor in persuading us to sign the CFE treaty," a senior Western diplomat said. "But this is going to go right down to the wire."

Despite its refusal to countenance a negotiated solution to the crisis, Moscow will permit the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, to visit the region tomorrow to see the refugees. But it was unclear whether she would visit just Ingushetia, where some 200,000 Chechens have fled, or be allowed into the breakaway republic itself.