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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Slams Russia Over Use of Force in Conflict

The United States on Thursday accused Moscow of using "overwhelming force" in its battle with Muslim rebels in Chechnya, ending a post-Sept. 11 trend of avoiding criticizing Russia's campaign there.

The sharp words came a day after Moscow announced results of one its bloodiest crackdowns in the secessionist province for a year, saying it had killed 92 rebels in a month.

"The latest information on Russian operations in Chechnya indicates a continuation of human rights violations and the use of overwhelming force against civilian targets," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a news briefing.

The chief Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said the casualties were inflicted in a host of settlements southeast of Grozny and that five Russian servicemen were killed and 24 others wounded.

He gave no figure for civilian deaths, which have been almost impossible to verify independently.

Human rights groups routinely put the civilian death toll in the thousands, however.

A State Department official said the U.S. assessment that civilians had been targeted in the attacks on settlements including Argun and Tsotsin-Yurt was based on reports from Russians on the ground, including members of the Memorial human rights group which has worked to document abuses in Chechnya.

Boucher's words were a rude awakening after months of muted Western comments on Chechnya since Sept. 11, in contrast with the regular ear-bashings Moscow had earlier received at international gatherings and bilaterally for the scale of the campaign.

Boucher said Washington would continue to urge both sides to pursue political negotiations, adding that the lack of a solution and "the number of credible reports of massive human rights violations, we believe, contribute to an environment that's favorable toward terrorism."

His remarks sounded like a sharp rebuke to Armed Forces chief of staff General Anatoly Kvashnin, who ruled out talks with the main Chechen separatist leaders Thursday.

"It is clear that there are terrorist factions in Chechnya with ties to al-Qaida and international terrorism networks, and as part of the war on terrorism we're cooperating with the Russians on cutting off those kinds of ties," Boucher said.

"Unfortunately, the Russians have not pursued the initial and encouraging contacts with Chechen separatists," he added.

In a statement by the Kremlin information office released late Friday through Itar-Tass, Moscow rejected Boucher's remarks and said it regretted the tone of his statement.

The report also quoted Chechnya's head prosecutor and prime minister as denying that any human rights abuses occurred during operations in Argun.

As it has done since the Sept. 11 attacks, Russia equated its campaign in Chechnya with the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism.

"Our experience in Chechnya and America's experience in Afghanistan show how hard it is sometimes to reach terrorists and to prevent any harm on civilians. Nevertheless, that is the goal of Russia and the United States," the Kremlin said, Itar-Tass reported.

(Reuters, AP)