Ambassador summoned over Chechnya crisis

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The Government today called in the Russian Ambassador in a bid to step up diplomatic pressure over Chechnya.

The Government today called in the Russian Ambassador in a bid to step up diplomatic pressure over Chechnya.

Mr Yuri Fokine was expected to see Foreign Secretary Robin Cook or Europe Minister Keith Vaz at mid-day today.

Russia has issued an ultimatum to the people of the beleaguered city of Grozny warning them to leave by the weekend or face annihilation.

A Downing Street spokesman said of the ambassador: "He will be told in no uncertain terms what Europe and the UK think about the five-day ultimatum."

Mr cook is also expected to spell out the Government's anger at the Russian moves when he answers Foreign Office questions in the Commons later today.

Meanwhile in Washington, in his strongest comments to date on the Chechen crisis, US President Bill Clinton described the Russian tactics as "wrong" and warned that they would prove counter-productive.

"Russia will pay a heavy price for those actions, with each passing day sinking more deeply into a morass that will intensify extremism and diminish its own standing in the world," he said.

European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, also denounced Russia's "unacceptable threat" to the Chechen people.

However Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen, who presided at the meeting, acknowledged there was little the EU could do to force Russia to change tactics.

She said the 15 EU leaders - who will discuss the crisis at this weekend's two-day summit in Helsinki - could refuse to sign international agreements with Russia, but admitted that would only be a "political signal".

"I don't think that would stop military action," she said.

Yesterday Russian planes dropped flyers on Grozny warning that anyone in the city had until Saturday to flee before their forces unleashed a massive artillery and air bombardment to smash the city into submission.

It said a safe corridor would be open until December 11 to let civilians escape.

"Persons who stay in the city will be considered terrorists and bandits and will be destroyed by artillery and aviation. There will be no further negotiations. Everyone who does not leave the city will be destroyed," the leaflets said.

Russian forces have been bombing and shelling Grozny for weeks in an attempt to dislodge rebels entrenched in the city but as Russian troops have tried to tighten their encirclement of the city the rebels have put up greater resistance.

Russian troops launched their drive in September to wipe out Islamic militants accused of plunging Chechnya into lawlessness since the withdrawal of Russian forces after a 1994-96 war in which tens of thousands died.

The militants have also been blamed for a terrorist campaign of bombings in Russian cities which left 300 people dead.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seen as the driving force behind the campaign, says the Kremlin's aim was to restore control over the entire region.

Civilian deaths and suffering have brought strong criticism from abroad but Putin, whose popularity has soared during the fighting, has said he believed Western leaders would not act to oppose the campaign.

EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme that there was a range of aid initiatives being given to Russia and the EU was trying to draw Russia into the family of European nations.

He said all of that could be affected by the Chechnya offensive and added that his message to the Russians was plain: "It is inevitably going to affect our relations if you behave in Chechnya in ways which is totally disproportionate to the understandable problem that you have got there."

Mr Patten added: "It will be increasingly the case that European public opinion will say to us 'You can't go on as though it is business as usual'."

He said: "What I am saying is not in any way a threat, it is the real world."

Spokeswoman for the UNHCR Lyndal Sachs said on the same programme that the effect of the Russian ultimatum was to "terrify an already terrified population".

She added: "The people who are trapped inside Grozny are the one who can't get out because they are sick, they are old or they are very young. To tell these people to leave just creates conditions on the ground which are impossible for them to meet."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell said Russia was guilty of "medieval barbarism".

He said: "The harsh and unpalatable truth - and I do not exclude the Liberal Democrats from this criticism - is that all political parties in the United Kingdom have been supine in the face of the medieval barbarism directed against the people of Chechnya.

"Indiscriminate bombing and shelling, the failure to allow refugees the chance to escape and now this terrifying ultimatum - all add up to behaviour which should be roundly condemned.

"Any legitimate means of bringing pressure on the Russian government - such as economic and trade sanctions, financial and diplomatic measures and the withholding of IMF and World Bank support - should now be under active consideration."