updated 3/21/2005 3:00:46 PM ET 2005-03-21T20:00:46

Widespread kidnappings of civilians in Chechnya, most of them allegedly by government forces, have reached the level of a crime against humanity, Human Rights Watch said Monday in a report that also condemned the European Union for taking no action on the problem.

In France, Chechnya’s Moscow-backed president, Alu Alkhanov, acknowledged human rights abuses in Chechnya but said “the situation has been improving” and reports of widespread kidnappings in the breakaway province were exaggerated.

The New York-based rights organization issued its report as the Council of Europe hosted informal talks on Chechnya’s future in Strasbourg, France. The council is Europe’s top human rights watchdog.

The report said thousands of people have gone missing in Chechnya since 1999, the start of the latest conflict between Russian forces and separatists. The report documented several dozen new cases of “disappearances” that it said had occurred mostly within recent months.

Intimidation 'worse than war'
“Thousands of people have 'disappeared’ in Chechnya since 1999, with the full knowledge of the Russian authorities,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “Witnesses now tell us that the atmosphere of utter arbitrariness and intimidation is 'worse than a war.”’

Human Rights Watch also condemned the European Union for failing to introduce a resolution on Chechnya this year at the 53-nation U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which is now in session in Geneva. In both 2000 and 2001, the U.N. commission passed resolutions calling on the Russian government to stop abuses in Chechnya.

“It is astounding that the European Union has decided to take no action on Chechnya at the commission,” Denber said. “To look the other way while crimes against humanity are being committed is unconscionable.”

Human Rights Watch cited an estimate by local human rights groups that 3,000-5,000 people have gone missing since the beginning of the current conflict in 1999, the second in a decade. Russian authorities deny all responsibility for their fate or knowledge of their whereabouts, it said.

Human rights defenders have accused Russian security forces and their pro-Moscow Chechen allies of widespread abuses against civilians in Chechnya, including kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killings.

Chechen rebels have mounted a growing number of terrorist acts, culminating in September’s seizure of 1,000 hostages at a school in southern Russia, which ended in the death of some 330 people — about half of them children.

Regional leader: Situation is improving
At the Council of Europe’s Strasbourg meeting, Alkhanov said he was aware of human rights abuses and said his administration was working to improve the situation.

“We do admit that human rights and legal abuse is still a reality in Chechnya and that the state of affairs in the social and political sphere is not as good as it should be,” he said. “At the same time ... the republic’s leadership has been working really hard to improve the situation. And the situation has been improving.”

But he said the kidnapping reports were overblown.

European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner defended the decision not to introduce a resolution at the U.N. human rights session in Geneva.

“We are seriously concerned about the problem of human rights in Chechnya,” Ferrero-Waldner told Interfax in Moscow, where she was attending talks on an EU-Russia cooperation agreement.

But she added that the European Union wanted to concentrate on helping to resolve the conflict through economic assistance and planned to send a mission to the impoverished North Caucasus region in April.

Moscow rules out talks with terrorists
At the meeting in Strasbourg, Alkhanov ruled out any negotiations with people he called terrorists, a reference to the Chechen rebels. He said his administration would only cooperate with those who recognized the territorial integrity of Russia and gave up demands for Chechen independence.

No representatives of the Chechen rebel movement were participating in the Strasbourg talks. Some participants complained that with no Chechen opposition to talk to, the meeting was one-sided.

A precondition for joining the Strasbourg event was to recognize Russia’s territorial integrity and to agree not to use terrorism to achieve goals, terms that excluded all Chechen hard-liners.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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