(CNSNews.com) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin reacted angrily Thursday to Western criticism of the war in Chechnya, telling a European security summit in Turkey that the "cancer" of terrorism had to stopped.
Yeltsin was responding to remarks by the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, and UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. After Yeltsin spoke to the group, President Clinton also questioned Moscow's military campaign, citing the number of civilian casualties and refugees, and warning Yeltsin that Russia was risking the strength it was trying to build.
Clinton and Yeltsin were due to meet later. The Russian president described the conflict in the breakaway Caucasian republic as a counter-terrorism operation, and he told the summit he did not accept "the advice of so-called objective critics of Russia. "Those people do not understand that we simply must stop the spread of this cancer and prevent its growths from spreading across the world," he continued. Reacting to Vollabaek's offer for the OSCE to help mediate a political settlement in Chechnya, Yeltsin said Russia refused to negotiate with "rebels and killers."
Russia launched its offensive seven weeks ago after blaming Islamic militants in Chechnya for a series of bomb blasts in Russian cities. The rebels also made armed incursions into neighboring Dagestan.
"You have no right to criticize Russia for Chechnya," Yeltsin told the assembled leaders in Istanbul. "There was a wave of terrorist acts that swept through Moscow and other cities of Russia and caused 1,580 casualties." A political solution would only be possible, he said, once the Islamic rebels were destroyed or brought to justice.
Earlier, Vollebaek voiced OSCE's support for Russia's territorial integrity and its "legitimate right to combat the scourge of terrorism." But, he said, "the means must be proportional to the threat."
Annan also said the fight against terrorism had to be proportionate. "We cannot and must not fight them by using their own methods, by inflicting indiscriminate violence and terror on innocent civilians."
Before the OSCE summit began, US National Security Adviser Sandy Berger told reporters the OSCE nations would not "gang up" on Russia. "Virtually everybody here wants Russia to succeed in its transformation that it's been undergoing for the last 10 years to a working democracy with a working economy ... so I don't think it's a question of ganging up. I think it's a question of expressing serious concern."
In his speech to the OSCE gathering, President Clinton said Russia's offensive against Chechen rebels threatened to trigger an "endless cycle of violence." He said Russia would lose international support if civilians in Chechnya continue to be harmed. "Russia's friends are united, I believe, in what we think should happen: appropriate measures to end terrorism, protection of innocent civilians, a commitment to allow refugees to return in safety, access for relief groups and a common effort to rebuild."
The human rights group Amnesty International yesterday appealed to the OSCE to "use its collective power to urge Russia to end the onslaught" in Chechnya. "The world cannot sit idly by while Russia continues direct attacks on civilians," it said in a statement. A representative had just returned from the region, and had taken testimonies pointing to military attacks on civilians.
Thousands of people trying to flee Chechnya were being prevented from doing so, Amnesty claimed.
Meanwhile Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser during the Carter administration, has alleged that the Russians are preparing to use chemical warfare against the rebel Chechen forces. Rather than risk soldiers' lives in street combat in the final stages of the offensive, Russia was planning to use chemical weapons, and "possibly even poison gas," in urban areas, he claimed in an article in a German newspaper.
Brzezinski said gas masks had been issued to servicemen, and women and children were being evacuated from towns and villages ahead of a chemical attack. A Russian government spokesman was quoted as calling the allegations "a lie."