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Russia demands total surrender by Chechens as refugee crisis grows

DESPITE INTENSIFYING Western criticism and an imminent European security summit, Russia insisted yesterday that only surrender by the insurgents would bring about an end to its military onslaught in Chechnya.

"If they [the guerrillas] lay down their arms and halt their action, things could end quickly," Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said as he arrived in Helsinki to discuss the European Union's "Northern Dimension", strengthening co-operation between Nordic and Baltic countries, and Russia.

The words of Mr Ivanov are a further sign Moscow is ready to continue its bombardment even as it sits down to next week's summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Istanbul, to be attended by both Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.

Yesterday brought no let-up in the offensive, as Russian jets bombed the capital, Grozny, as well as villages in the west of the breakaway region. The only hint of a breakthrough was a Russian news agency report that insurgents in Gudermes, Chechnya's second largest city, were seeking talks with a Russian commander.

But as the bombs rain down, the humanitarian crisis in and around Chechnya continues to grow, with some 200,000 refugees in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, and at least as many again uprootedwithin Chechnya itself. "The situation is not getting better, it is getting worse," the Finnish Foreign Minister, Tarja Halonen, said after meeting Mr Ivanov.

The increasing frictions have already turned the OSCE summit into a diplomatic minefield, with the West confronted with a dilemma: take retaliatory action against Moscow and risk losing what little backstage leverage it has, or continue to soft-pedal in the hope of obtaining at least minor concessions from the Russians.

Until yesterday, the latter had seemed the preferred course. But in the most blunt challenge to Moscow yet, senior officials from the French Foreign Ministry met Ilyas Akhmadov, the self-styled Chechen foreign minister - a step described in a Russian statement as "an unfriendly act" and "de-facto complicity with Chechen separatists and terrorists".

Russia's intransigence casts a dark shadow over plans for the signature of a European Security Charter at the 54-nation meeting in Turkey, and for agreement on an updated Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Some diplomats say it would simply be impossible to sign a treaty limiting conventional weapons, when Moscow has violated it by massing over 100,000 troops in and around Chechnya and is conducting a full-scale war.

Another option is to go ahead and sign the new CFE deal, but to refuse to submit it for ratification until there is a negotiated solution to the Chechen war. A third possibility is to attach to the text a Russian declaration that it will normalise the situation as soon as it can.

The best hope, some officials believe, lies in the fact that President Yeltsin considers the meeting important enough to attend in person, despite his weak health. The OSCE has long been Russia's "favourite" European security forum, built on the principle of the sanctity of national borders - something that even Moscow's critics believe must be respected over Chechnya, juridically part of the Russian Federation.