Thursday, January 13 9:25 AM ET

Nobel Peace Laureates Accuse Russia of War Crimes

PARIS

(Reuters) - Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has accused Russia of war crimes against civilians during its military campaign in Chechnya and called on the United States to use its influence to force Moscow to end the fighting.

In an open letter to President Clinton, the medical aid agency compared the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Chechen refugees to that of ethnic Albanians forced to flee Kosovo by Serb soldiers last year.

``For nearly four months the Russian armed forces have been indiscriminately bombing the city of Grozny and much of the entire Chechen republic,'' MSF said in the letter dated Jan. 12.

``Cities, villages, hospitals, marketplaces, and refugee convoys and corridors have now become targets. These acts against civilians constitute war crimes,'' it wrote.

MSF, winners of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, said the Clinton administration had been swift to highlight the plight of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

By comparison, there was little high-level debate on Chechnya, it said.

``As in Kosovo hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced from their homes. Tens of thousands are still trapped in their basements or hidden in the forests and mountains. Thousands have already been wounded or killed.

``Do they suffer any less than the people of Kosovo? From a humanitarian perspective, there is no difference,'' it wrote.

The international aid agency welcomed the fact Clinton had voiced his concern over Russia's treatment of refugees, but said words meant little unless they produced results.

``You must prevail upon Russia to abide by its obligations under humanitarian law,'' it said.

The fighting in Chechnya has forced MSF to withdraw its staff from the province, but the group said it had ascertained details of what was going on there by questioning refugees in neighboring Georgia.

"(They) speak of deliberate and gruesome attacks on civilians throughout the republic,'' MSF said.

It called for an immediate halt to Russia's ``attacks on Chechen civilians,'' safe passage for those who want to leave the area and ``unimpeded humanitarian access'' to everyone inside Chechnya and the surrounding republics.