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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Military Announces Winter Offensive

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced on Thursday that Russia would try to smash separatist resistance in Chechnya with a winter offensive, but European rights monitors urged Moscow to pursue and broaden peace talks.

"This winter we will seek to finish off the remaining bandit groups, and capture or destroy their ringleaders. This I promise you," Ivanov said in remarks made in Yekaterinburg and broadcast on television.

In Moscow, a Council of Europe delegation said peace talks between the Kremlin and Chechen separatists were a positive step and it urged Russia to bring in more rebel leaders.

The delegation, speaking after visiting Chechnya with Russian parliament members, said life in the region continued to be beset by unsolved killings and other human rights abuses.

Thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict were set to face winter living in "grotesque conditions" in camps, delegation head Frank Judd told a news conference.

Judd, a member of the British House of Lords, said talks between officials of the Kremlin and a Chechen rebel group led by Aslan Maskhadov were important but were not enough on their own to bring peace to the region.

Last month, in the first publicly acknowledged meeting between the two sides since the conflict flared up again in 1999, the presidential envoy for southern Russia, Viktor Kazantsev, met Akhmed Zakayev, deputy prime minister in Maskhadov's rebel government, near Moscow.

"I think the president's [Vladimir Putin's] initiative is very important, but it is not enough in itself," Judd said.

"There has to be a context -- a context that needs a wider selection of people than just Maskhadov."

Other rebel factions needed to be brought in, he said.

"Look at the Middle East, look at Ireland -- if you don't involve a wider cross-section of society ... you have people outside the solution who want to wreck it," Judd said.

"I think there are criminal elements that don't want a settlement ... but in a very complicated situation I do get worried when everyone gets branded together as bandits and terrorists," he said.

Ivanov also told reporters Russia planned by next spring to cut its army presence in the Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, withdrawing many of the troops who had been sent in from outside to reinforce federal forces based in the region.

"We believe that the presence of these troops there is excessive," he said in televised remarks. The size of the cut-back in real terms was not clear.

Last year similar sweeping claims of a winter end to the conflict were made by Russian generals, with no visible result.

Human rights continued to be flouted, the delegation said, with disappearances and unresolved court cases still rife.

"We are particularly concerned about the mass killings -- these cases have not been resolved. In human rights terms this is fundamental," Judd said.

"We are all concerned by the massive, by the very pervasive, corruption at all levels, which does not augur well for [the reconstruction of] the economy," he said.

The situation in the refugee camps that house around 170,000 Chechens both in Chechnya and in neighboring Ingushetia was critical, Judd said, with the plight of the refugees worsening as winter began to set in.

"The condition in which those people, who have been through hell, will have to spend the winter is just grotesque," he said.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of the State Duma's international affairs committee, said refugees themselves contributed to what he called disgusting conditions.

"There exists a mentality of dependency in these camps. These refugees refuse to do anything to improve their lives in the camp. They think the government must do everything for them," Rogozin said.