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NEWS STORY: Muslim demonstrators urge end to Russian offensive in Chechnya

c. 1999 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ As Russian jets and artillery pieces continued their relentless pounding of his homeland Thursday (Nov. 18), Lyoma Usmanov waged his own rhetorical war in support of Chechnya on a downtown Washington sidewalk, handing out flyers and explaining to passersby his analysis of the latest chapter in his nation’s […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ As Russian jets and artillery pieces continued their relentless pounding of his homeland Thursday (Nov. 18), Lyoma Usmanov waged his own rhetorical war in support of Chechnya on a downtown Washington sidewalk, handing out flyers and explaining to passersby his analysis of the latest chapter in his nation’s blood-stained history.

Moscow says it launched its current military offensive in August to root out Chechen”bandits”and Islamic extremists it says have twice invaded Dagestan, Chechnya’s neighboring republic. Moscow also blames Chechen radicals for a string of terrorist apartment house bombings that preceded the Russian offensive and killed about 300 people.

Speaking Thursday in Istanbul, Turkey, at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting, Russian President Boris Yeltsin repeated those assertions, saying the military action was necessary to end the threat from”bandits and murders.” President Clinton and other Western leaders at the meeting urged Yeltsin to end the Russian action, particularly”attacks on civilians.” In Washington, Usmanov dismissed Yeltsin’s claims.”This has nothing to do with so-called bandits and terrorists,”said Usmanov, chairman of the United States-Chechen Republic Alliance.”This is a war to dominate Chechnya and control Caspian Sea oil.” Usmanov was one of about 30 Chechens, American Muslims and others who demonstrated Thursday outside Russian embassy property just blocks from the White House.

Abshir Abshir, a Somali-born 26-year-old, said the relatively small number of Muslims at the demonstration was unrepresentative of the community’s concern over the Chechnya situation.”The people here represent the millions of Muslims who can’t be here on a work day in Washington,”said Abshir, who happened by the demonstration during his lunch break from a nearby private aid agency.”Muslims ask why the West does nothing to help them. Are our lives not worth anything?” The demonstrators called upon the United States and European nations to cut off all economic aid to Russia until Moscow ends its military offensive, which Chechen officials say has killed more then 4,100 civilians, wounded thousands more and caused more than 300,000 to flee their homes.

Separately, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches and Human Rights Watch, the international human rights organization, also urged the international community to apply additional pressure on Moscow to halt the Russian attacks.

Human Rights Watch said Russian soldiers were demanding bribes from fleeing Chechen refugees and firing at their vehicles.

A WCC statement deplored”the disproportionate and irresponsible use of force employed by the Russian military forces, which is contributing to a humanitarian crisis of the utmost seriousness.” In response, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexii II defended his government’s action.”Peaceful civilians have died, houses exploded,”he was quoted as saying by Russia’s Interfax news agency.”Doesn’t this bother anyone? Why are there so many advocates supporting terrorism?” Russians and Chechens have fought repeated wars since Moscow first sought to dominate the Caucasus region at the turn of the 19th century. Russian control has been absent from the region since 1996, when Chechnya again gained its de facto independence from Moscow after a two-year war that left most of Chechnya in ruins.

Chechnya has never recovered from that devastation, and the current fighting has made the situation even worse for the civilian population, Chechen officials and international aid groups agree.

Dilshad Fakroddin, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Supreme Council of America, said at the Washington demonstration that Chechens traditionally have been associated with Sufi Muslim groups that eschew the sort of political extremism linked to some fundamentalist Muslims.

Chechen extremists who have battled Russia are not connected to the Chechen government, she said, echoing a claim made by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.”You don’t attack an entire civilian population because of a few individuals who act indiscriminately,”she said.

DEA END RIFKIN