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#11 - JRL 7130
Call for Chechnya war crimes court angers Russia

MOSCOW, April 3 (Reuters) - Russia on Thursday angrily denounced as "politically harmful" a suggestion by a European human rights body that a war crimes tribunal could be set up for the troubled Russian region of Chechnya.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, main Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, said the Council of Europe's move ignored changes in the region, primarily the overwhelming support in last month's referendum for a constitution anchoring Chechnya within Russia.

"The decision is politically harmful because it runs counter to prevailing new developments in Chechnya's political situation after the referendum, which point to peace and stability," he said in a statement.

Russia's deputy prosecutor general, Sergei Fridinsky, quoted by Interfax news agency, also denounced Wednesday's resolution as "lacking all legal foundation."

"It is blatant interference in legislation governing justice and Russia's legal system," he said.

The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, a prominent but largely powerless human rights and democracy watchdog, backed the creation of a war crimes tribunal if the rights picture did not improve in Chechnya.

Russian troops have often been accused of resorting to harsh methods in their efforts to stamp out a separatist insurgency extending over most of the past decade.

After being humiliated in a 1994-96 war, the Russian army returned to Chechnya in 1999 to end the region's three-year de facto independence. Troops have established nominal control but failed to stamp out armed resistance by Chechen separatist militants.

But President Vladimir Putin and other officials have pointed to the referendum as evidence that Chechens wanted peace while being governed within Russia. The vote is to be followed by elections for a Chechen president and assembly.

Russian officials have been particularly indignant about periodic criticism of the anti-separatist drive by the Council of Europe, one of the few pan-European bodies of which Russia is a full member.

Western criticism of Russian policy in Chechnya has been more subdued since the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. targets as many leaders accepted Moscow's arguement linking Chechen rebels to international terrorism.

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