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Referendum Could Help Resolve Chechen Conflict, says Human Rights Official - 2003-02-16

A senior European human rights official has endorsed Russia's plan to hold a referendum in Chechnya next month on a new constitution. Until now the Kremlin has been repeatedly criticized for its plan to hold a vote in the war-torn region. The human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe said the referendum, aimed at paving the way for new elections, could be a first step toward a political resolution to the bloody conflict in Chechnya.

However, Alvaro Gil-Robles conditioned his endorsement by saying Russia must do more to control its soldiers, who he said continue to commit abuses against civilians.

The commissioner said many Chechens continue to disappear when Russian troops carry out security sweeps in towns and villages across Chechnya.

Mr. Gil-Robles spoke in Moscow after a fact-finding trip to the region where Russian forces have been battling separatist rebels for most of the past eight years.

Human rights groups, as well as the Council of Europe itself, have criticized the plan to hold a referendum in conditions of war.

Mr. Gil-Robles' assessment about the vote comes less than a month after another Council of Europe official, Frank Judd, called on Russia to postpone the referendum to a later date.

The Kremlin ignored his advice, and Mr. Judd soon resigned as the Council's Chechnya representative.

Critics say no vote can be fair as the war continues and that the referendum is simply an attempt by Russia to show the situation has now stabilized.

Mr. Gil-Robles said that in meetings with Russian officials, he emphasized the need for Moscow to prosecute any soldiers who commit crimes against civilians. Until now, such prosecutions have been rare.

Meanwhile, fighting continues to rage in the devastated republic, with three Russian soldiers reported killed on Saturday.

Separatist groups routinely fire on Russian checkpoints and plant land mines, which take an almost daily toll on Russian forces.