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Russia Urged to Postpone Chechen Referendum - 2003-01-24

A European human rights official has called on Russia to postpone a referendum in the separatist region of Chechnya, now scheduled to be held in March. The Council of Europe official, Frank Judd, has just returned to Moscow from a visit to the war-torn republic in southern Russia.

Mr. Judd says the continuing conflict in Chechnya does not allow for the free exchange of ideas or a fair vote. He is a senior official of the Council of Europe, the continent's chief human rights watchdog organization, and he has visited Chechnya many times.

Mr. Judd made a three-day visit to Chechnya, where daily battles continue between Russian troops and separatist rebels. He says on the basis of what he saw, proper discussion on the region's future is impossible.

Russia recently announced it would hold the referendum as a means to decide Chechnya's political status within the Russian Federation. The Kremlin also wants to write up a new Constitution to pave the way for elections sometime in the future.

But critics say this is just an attempt by the Russian government to support its claim that the situation in Chechnya has returned to normal.

President Vladimir Putin and other top officials have often said the bloody war is all but over. But the violence in Chechnya continues as rebels mount hit-and-run attacks against Russian troops. Late last month at least 72 people were killed in the republic's main government building by two suicide car bombers.

In recent months Russia has also been criticized for trying to force refugees to leave their tent camps in neighboring regions and return home.