NAZRAN, RUSSIA, DEC. 25 -- Russia's top human rights official has strongly criticized the Clinton administration's response to Moscow's intervention in the breakaway region of Chechnya as insufficient in the face of mounting civilian casualties there.
Sergei Kovalyov, a Soviet-era dissident who is now Russia's human rights commissioner, took issue with Washington's position that the Chechen crisis is Moscow's internal affair.
"The position of the United States is absolutely inadequate given the ongoing violence and victims," he said. "It's clear this position should be radically changed, and that would help the peaceful population which is suffering here."
He added: "As is accepted all over the world, massive and grave violation of human rights can never be an internal affair of any country at all."
Kovalyov, who is also one of the most respected members of the Russian parliament, made his remarks Saturday in an interview with special correspondent Andrei Mironov in the besieged Chechen capital of Grozny. Kovalyov has held a vigil there for 10 days as Russian rockets and bombs have fallen around him.
Many political figures in Moscow have criticized the Russian intervention in Chechnya. In Moscow today, for example, a member of President Boris Yeltsin's advisory Presidential Council, Emil Pain, echoed some of Kovalyov's criticisms and suggested there are deepening divisions among Yeltsin's aides. Pain hinted that a meeting Monday of Russia's Security Council, to be chaired by Yeltsin, would offer a clear opportunity to shift the policy.
But few of the other critics have Kovalyov's moral stature. A close friend of the late human rights champion Andrei Sakharov, Kovalyov, a biologist, spent seven years in Soviet prison camps and another three in internal exile under Communist rule.
His remarks come as Western governments, including the United States, have begun to express deepening concern about the Russian campaign in Chechnya. But no country in the West has budged from its basic position that the Chechen crisis is Moscow's internal problem.
"The West should exert pressure on Russia through public and private diplomatic channels to steer the process onto a peaceful path," Kovalyov said. "I firmly believe that this sort of pressure could be effective... . The West should confirm by real actions its adherence to the primacy of human rights."
Although he is in his mid-sixties and in poor health, Kovalyov led a small delegation of lawmakers from Moscow to Grozny on Dec. 15. He has refused to leave even as Russian warplanes have intensified their bombardment of the Chechen capital in recent days.
Despite daytime attacks by the Russian air force, Kovalyov has insisted on touring the city during the day to assess bomb damage and evaluate civilian casualties.
The Russian air raids have cut off power, water and telephones and damaged and destroyed homes, apartments, schools, theaters and Grozny's downtown parliament building. Hundreds of civilians -- including Chechens, ethnic Russians and others -- have been killed and badly wounded in the attacks.
"Here we are seeing human rights violations at every intersection destroyed by bombing," Kovalyov said. "We see many corpses of victims and we know about casualties inflicted on peaceful people."
The Russian government said that about 1,000 Chechen fighters were killed in clashes near Argun, nine miles east of Grozny, the Interfax and Tass news agencies reported today. The report could not be confirmed, and there was no word on Russian casualties, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to criticizing Washington's policy on the crisis, Kovalyov also condemned Yeltsin's government for forging a "chain of lies" to justify its intervention in Chechnya Dec. 11.
In the interview, he ran through what he called the patter of official deception that has characterized Russia's involvement in Chechnya, starting with bombing runs and an armed assault on Grozny last month. The Russian Defense Ministry at first denied knowing anything about those early attacks, although it later turned out that they were carried out covertly by Russian pilots and troops.
In a telegram that Kovalyov sent to Yeltsin today, Kovalyov said: "You must understand that you are losing time. Those who started this war will very soon not need you.
"Only you are capable of stopping this crazy massacre and of pulling the nation out of this vicious circle of despair and blood-stained lies," he said.
On a prominent Moscow television news program, "Itogi," Kovalyov's criticisms were echoed in part by Pain, an adviser to Yeltsin on ethnic affairs. Pain said he had written a letter resigning from his position on Yeltsin's Presidential Council in protest of the military offensive, but had not delivered it because he hoped still to have some influence on Yeltsin.
"Itogi" cited a poll that agreed with others published in recent days showing a majority of Russians are opposed to the Chechen policy.
But Yeltsin's administration was silent on what he is doing to address the crisis. The cabinet and Security Council met but issued no statements.
Kovalyov insisted that it is not too late to find a political solution to the Chechen crisis, provided the Russians check their drive toward Grozny. He says Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, who said last week he would negotiate only with Yeltsin or Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, has softened his stance and is now willing to meet other Russian officials.
Correspondent James Rupert contributed to this report from Moscow.