(CNSNews.com) - In Bosnia on Wednesday, US Defense Secretary William Cohen called on Russia to try to find a political settlement with Muslim rebels in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya.
"There has to be a political settlement and we have been calling upon Russians to do precisely that,'' Cohen said.
Cohen, accompanied by NATO military chief Army General Wesley Clark and a planeload of entertainers, was speaking during a pre-Christmas visit to the 4,000-strong US peacekeeping contingent based near the northern town of Tuzla.
Earlier Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quoted by Reuters News Service as saying that the military campaign in Chechnya was nearing its end.
Relations between the United States and Russia have been strained by Moscow's military campaign in Chechnya and NATO's 11-week-long air war earlier this year against Yugoslavia to halt Belgrade's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
"As you know, the United States and all of the international community have spoken out very strongly about what has taken place in Chechnya,'' Cohen told reporters. "There's very much at stake - economically, diplomatically -ultimately in our dealings with Russia,'' he added.
"We understand that acts of terrorism cannot go without response, but...we try to indicate to Russians that they have really stepped across the bounds of internationally-acceptable behavior in dealing with Chechnya,'' Cohen said.
A top Russian general Wednesday criticized NATO, saying the alliance-led peace mission in Kosovo was failing and its criticism of Russian operations in Chechnya was hypocritical.