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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Council Sets Deadline for Ceasefire

STRASBOURG, France -- The Council of Europe voted Thursday to start suspension proceedings against Russia unless it substantially improves its human rights record in Chechnya by the end of May.

No country has ever been suspended from the 41-nation body in its 51-year history, but the Council's assembly said member-country governments should take action if Moscow fails to call a cease-fire and start talks with rebel Chechen leaders.

The Strasbourg-based Council is a consultative organization independent of the European Union and pays special attention to human rights issues. It cannot suspend members without the approval of member-state government ministers.

Council officials said in private it was unlikely ministers would take up their recommendation, but said the vote was an embarrassment to Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, who has staked his political reputation on the Chechnya campaign.

The vote was approved by a "clear two-thirds majority" following a show of hands, assembly chairman Lord Russell-Johnston said. Russia has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1996.

In the debate before the vote, emotions boiled over at one point.

"These people are bandits," said Gadzhy Makhachev, a Russian delegate from Dagestan. "Russia did not want this war, it was the people of Chechnya who wanted the war."

Minutes later, Makhachev exchanged punches with a Chechen representative as he left the assembly chamber.

Russian speakers urged the assembly to withdraw its suspension threat, but one delegation member said he thought Moscow needed a lesson from the rest of Europe.

"It is obvious there have been human rights violations in Chechnya," said Sergei Kovalyov, a leading human rights activist. "The most severe sanctions should be taken against my country," he said to loud applause.

The assembly also approved a motion Thursday to immediately suspend Russia's voting rights, which prompted the Russian delegation to leave.

"We are not able to participate in the work of the parliamentary assembly in the Council of Europe. We regret that this has happened," the head of the Russian delegation, Dmitry Rogozin, said seconds after the vote.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry said it was "studying the decision with all seriousness and concern." Interfax reported.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Tuesday gave the green light to Council of Europe experts to investigate human rights charges in Chechnya.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a delegate at the Council of Europe, said he thought Russia should pull out of the human rights body so it could be "crueler" in Chechnya.

"This is no time to hear that we have violated human rights. This is not true. It is not good for my hearing. It is not good for my hair. I know the real situation and think that Russia needs to be more cruel," he said in English in an interview before the vote.

"I like you, but it is not possible to remain here. It would be more easy not to be a member," he added. "I am very bored with Europe."

Zhirinovsky complained that instead of helping Moscow battle extremist Moslems, the West was backing Chechen "bandits."

"They like to use and enlarge the conflict in the Caucasus ... it is no good. It is a danger for us, for the United States of America and for Britain," he said, puffing on a small cigar that he held in a little white cigarette holder.