CombativeYeltsin in flat refusal to halt war

OSCE MEETING Russian President flies home early after telling Western leaders to keep out of Moscow's war against the `bandits' of Chechnya

A REINVIGORATED President Boris Yeltsin yesterday flatly rejected all criticism of Russia's savage war of repression in Chechnya - before heading home from the European security summit two hours early.

Enough agreement seemed to have been reached last night to permit signature of an updated treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, and of a European Security Charter, together with a summit declaration containing only the barest of Russian concessions on Chechnya.

The pattern was set at the opening session of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's conference when a combative, unapologetic President Yeltsin banished any hopes of a change of heart by Moscow. Briefly at least it was a return to the Boris Yeltsin of old, bear-hugging President Bill Clinton, and generally dominating proceedings, even though he returned to Moscow without waiting for the formal end of the conference today. There was little sign of his latest bouts of illness - "whatever he's taking, its working," one Western official remarked. And as one meeting began, President Jacques Chirac of France presented his Russian counterpart with a giant pen. Mr Yeltsin banged himself on the head with it and said: "Jacques, this is big enough to kill a man."

But later, all joviality forgotten, he brushed aside concerted pleas from Mr Chirac, Mr Clinton and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder for restraint and a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis in the insurgent province.

The Russian leader said that the West had no right whatsoever to criticise his country's conduct in Chechnya. "When dealing with terrorists, questions of proportionality and humaneness don't apply," he said, citing the "thousands of mercenaries, trained in camps on Chechen territory and beyond," who were "preparing to carry extremist ideas across the entire world."

Mr Yeltsin moreover rejected what he scornfully termed "the new idea" of "humanitarian interference in the affairs of another state, even under the pretext of defending human rights." He pointedly referred to the "disproportionate consequences" that such intervention could have, "as proved by the US-led Nato aggression against Yugoslavia".

In his own speech to the conference Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary who is leading the British delegation in Tony Blair's absence, cited Northern Ireland as an example of how ever-tougher action against terrorists could increase sympathy for them among civilians. But that point was also brushed aside by Mr Yeltsin.

A political settlement was fine he said, "but only when the bandits and gangsters have been eliminated."

Western delegates were taken aback by the harshness of Mr Yeltsin's stance. But the most they appeared to have clawed back in laborious negotiations was a grudging promise from the Russians that the OSCE's current chairman Knut Vollebaek, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, could travel to the region soon. But there was no sign of Moscow permitting an OSCE representative office in neighbouring Ingushetia, still less an OSCE mission to Chechnya itself to mediate an end to the conflict.

The European Security Charter deals with the need to protect minorities, and the right of one country to protest at human rights abuses and humanitarian disasters in another, but makes no specific mention of Chechnya.

The deal on the declaration clears the way for a new Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, updating the 1990 original to take account of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War, to be signed today. But it will not be ratified until Russia has pulled back enough tanks and artillery from Chechnya to bring it back into compliance.

However withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya's neighbour Georgia, where it has 7,000 troops and 140 tanks, could still prove an obstacle. Before he left Istanbul Mr Yeltsin met privately with Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian President, to try and resolve the issue.

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