In a diplomatic slap, Western leaders lectured Boris Yeltsin face-to-face Saturday to stop Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya. But an unrepentant Yeltsin insisted he had to “destroy those terrorists and bandits.”
Summit leaders balanced their criticism of Yeltsin with a strong condemnation of Chechen rebels’ taking of 1,000 hostages in a southern Russian town.
Concern about the widening war in Bosnia also hung heavily as the leaders of the world’s seven largest industrial nations wrapped up their three-day economic summit in this eastern Canadian seaport.
But in the end, the leaders merely renewed calls for a cease fire, urged a diplomatic settlement and condemned Serb forces for taking U.N. hostages and shelling civilian populations.
Yeltsin at first took the criticism of his Chechnya crackdown impassively, fiddling with the sound volume on his headset as Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien expressed concern on behalf of Western allies about the loss of life and urged a political settlement.
Later, however, during a meeting with President Clinton, the burly Russian leader scowled in rage at the Chechen rebels. Waving his arms and speaking forcefully, Yeltsin denounced the rebels as “horrible criminals with black bands on their foreheads.”
“Chechnya today is the center of world terrorism, of bribery and corruption and mafia,” Yeltsin said angrily. “We couldn’t act otherwise. We had to destroy those terrorists and bandits.”
Yeltsin said he explained the situation to summit leaders. “They now much better understand that this is really the only way that we can deal with these criminal elements.” He suggested that Clinton, in particular, was sympathetic with his views.
Clinton appeared impatient at Yeltsin’s lengthy outburst. Clinton said he agreed with other leaders “that sooner or later - better sooner than later - the cycle of violence has to be broken and ultimately in any democracy there has to be a political solution to people’s differences.”
Yeltsin’s tirade and slurred speech raised speculation he had been drinking. But a U.S. official well acquainted with the Russian leader said, “He was very much on top of his game.”
After talks with Yeltsin, Clinton squeezed in a golf game with Chretien before returning home.
Despite the summit’s rebuke, Yeltsin could take satisfaction from the summit’s strong condemnation of “the terrorist attack in Budyonnovsk,” the southern Russian city where Chechen rebels hold more than 1,000 hostages.
“We call for their immediate and unconditional release,” Chretien said in a closing statement from the summit of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada.
“There was a great deal of sympathy for the hostages and the terrible predicament President Yeltsin finds himself in,” British Prime Minister John Major said.
For his part, Yeltsin said, “The storming of the hospital is continuing. We have liberated 200 hostages. the operation is going on. I am in constant contact with our commanders.”
“I’m in complete control of the situation,” Yeltsin said, rejecting domestic criticism of his trip. “I myself become a hostage to these very same bandits by having to go back there,” he said in explaining why he didn’t cut his visit short and return to Russia.