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Chechnya

9.50 p.m.

Lord Rea rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking, together with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other international organisations, to end the conflict in Chechnya.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, tonight, like the rest of the world who have had a front-seat view on their television sets, our thoughts and our sympathy will be with the people of Pervomaiskoye who, through no fault of their own, have become involved in the terrifying maelstrom of military violence of the past few days. Despite our condemnation of hostage-taking, it is now clear that the Russians and not the Chechens are killing the hostages. Most people will be amazed at the skilled and stubborn resistance of the Chechen fighters in the face of such overwhelming fire power. They are still holding out, even tonight, though I suppose they must lose in the end. Most will die, as will many hostages. However, they will have achieved one objective; that is, of astonishing the whole world by their unshakable determination to achieve independence for their country, which is rather smaller than Wales with a population of about 1 million.

A few days ago the Guardian mistakenly translated words on the headband worn by Salman Raduyev, leader of the Chechen fighters, as reading "kamikaze fighter". The next day an Arabic-speaking reader of the newspaper politely wrote to say that the actual translation of the headband was, "There is but one Allah and Mohammed is his prophet". There is no doubt that whatever many Chechens feel about Dzhokhar Dudayev, they are now involved in a genuine popular national liberation movement with a strong religious faith behind them.

It is not, as some authorities in Russia have said, a fundamentalist faith; it is Sufi Islam, which is a more moderate form of the faith. I can assure your Lordships that those whom President Yeltsin called bandits are regarded as heroes at home. The Russian behaviour at Pervomaiskoye is, on a smaller scale, similar to the way in which they have handled Chechnya as a whole during the past 13 months. Just over a year ago they unleashed on Grozny the heaviest bombardment of high explosives seen since the Gulf War. It was many times more intense than the attack on Sarajevo, although that sporadically continued for a longer time.

However vivid are the pictures on the small screen, the experience of seeing the devastated city at first hand is overwhelming. Your Lordships will be aware that at the request of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group I was able to visit Chechnya in the first week of December, six weeks ago. Through interpreters I was able to speak to ordinary Chechen people who had suffered during the conflict, to General Aslan Maskhadov, who is the chief of staff of the Chechen forces, to close advisers of President Dudayev, to human rights workers and to members of the OSCE assistance group based in Grozny.

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Large swathes of the city of Grozny have been damaged beyond repair and are being demolished, leaving a surreal Hiroshima-like landscape. It is a macabre, nightmare scene. Other human rights violations have occurred. I will touch on those shortly but the wanton destruction of Grozny, which was once a handsome city with tree-lined streets, is an atrocity in itself. Gudermes, the second Chechen city, was recently recaptured from the resistance after they had taken it virtually undamaged. The Russians have there again adopted the bulldozer approach and virtually destroyed the centre of the town. As in Pervomaiskoye, Chechens and non-Chechens have been killed. In Grozny, many Russians died, all of whom were non-combatants. That is a flagrant breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention which forbids the use of unnecessary force and the killing of civilians.

Many of the bands of fighters now surrounded at Pervomaiskoye will have lost close family members and they are very, very angry men. Salman Raduyev, who led the Budennovsk raid last summer, had lost 27 members of his extended family.

The total of deaths in the war is not known exactly but 20,000 is a very conservative estimate. Of those, some 5,000 are military personnel, more Russian than Chechen, and there are 15,000--that is, three quarters of the total--civilians. If that figure among the 1 million Chechens were to be applied to the population of the United Kingdom of 56 million, the total number of deaths would reach more than 1 million. In World War Two we lost 60,000 civilians and 300,000 servicemen; in all, proportionally only a third as many as have died in the past 13 months in Chechnya.

I did not start by giving a historic background to the conflict but that can be found in Hansard of 18th April 1995 in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, who I am pleased to see is to speak this evening. However, it is important to point out that the current conflict is merely a continuation of a 250 year-old struggle between Russia and the peoples of the North Caucasus. The Chechens have always been the fiercest fighters among them. Like Poland, which has been ruled on and off by Russia for the past 200 years, they have never agreed voluntarily to be part of Russia. In fact, there is a strong fellow feeling between Poles and Chechens, despite their religious difference. Of course, the Poles are strong Catholics but they can sympathise with an Islamic nation.

Of the former federal republics of the Soviet Union which gained independence in 1991--some would say were decolonised--none had a longer history of confrontation with Russia than Chechnya. However, all the North Caucasian autonomous regions were retained within the Russian Federation itself.

The citizens of Chechnya elected Dudayev as president in 1991 on a clear independence ticket. Their neighbours, the Ingush, even though they had also been transported en masse to Kazakstan in 1944 with a loss of something like one-third of their numbers, took a more cautious line because the Russians had promised to get

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their ancient lands back from Ossetia, which had stolen them during their absence between 1944 and 1957 in Kazakstan.

Instead of waiting to see if Dudayev would win another election which was due, as many noble Lords will know, on 17th December and which took place in most of Russia on that date last year, to test the Chechen people's adherence to Dudayev's independence policy, Boris Yeltsin launched a military assault a year earlier than that with the devastating results that I have described.

Last year, after the Russians finally captured Grozny, sporadic fighting continued. One of the successes of the past year has been the establishment, with Russian agreement, of an OSCE assistance group in Grozny. It was a particular success because it was within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. It had a mandate to establish a ceasefire and monitor allegations of human rights abuses. After negotiations, which lasted nearly 40 days, a ceasefire agreement was finally reached in July of last year, and until recently the scale of the fighting had considerably decreased, though it rumbled on sporadically.

The work of the OSCE mission has not been easy, but it is potentially of very great value. I was told that only a small proportion of the complaints brought to it could be followed up. This applied to both ceasefire violations and allegations of human rights abuses. This arises in part from the lack of vehicles and staff--over 1,300 complaints have reached the mission--and in part from Russian obstruction. The French OSCE Chef de Mission seemed very reluctant to complain about it as he felt that technically he was in Russia and was therefore their guest. He has been replaced by a new Swiss head of mission; he has inherited that post at an incredibly difficult time. The assistance group left Grozny at the time of the 17th December elections because of an expectation of a flare up of violence. Incidentally, the OSCE strongly advised that those elections should be postponed and that the security situation was so bad that it was completely inappropriate to hold elections at that time. The mission has now returned.

Early last year a rocket-propelled grenade hit the roof of the mission, and its personnel were withdrawn until the Russians improved security around it. When they did the mission under its then Hungarian leader returned, but the British member of the group did not, to the disappointment of the others. I hope that the noble Baroness is listening. He was a valuable member of the group. On my return from Chechnya I asked in a Written Question whether the British member would return to Grozny or be replaced. In her reply the noble Baroness said that he had returned to his unit. I understood that to mean that he had gone back to Grozny. However, in a chance meeting with Foreign Office officials yesterday I found out that "returned to his unit" meant his military unit, not his OSCE unit in Grozny. We still have no representative there. I must complain to the noble Baroness that the wording of her reply was very misleading. She did not even answer my Question, which asked whether he would return to

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Grozny or be replaced. I hope she will say why we are not playing our part in the mission when other nations are able to send their representatives.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, this is a time-limited debate. Each speaker is allocated 12 minutes. Fourteen minutes have expired, which means that the amount of time available to others to speak in the debate is reduced.

Lord Rea: My Lords, it is my understanding that the Peer who asks the Question has at least 15 minutes, and I have arranged to speak for 18 minutes.


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