MOSCOW (AP) -- President Boris Yeltsin said Monday that Russia would not curb its military offensive in Chechnya in response to Western pressure, and he vowed to press ahead until all rebel fighters have been defeated.
"We won't stop as long as a single terrorist remains on our territory," Yeltsin told journalists at the Kremlin.Western countries have grown increasingly critical of Russia's campaign in Chechnya, with accusations that Russia is using excessive force that has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties. But Moscow maintains that it targets only rebel fighters and dismisses the criticism as interference in Russia's internal affairs.
Yeltsin has been largely out of public view for the past month. Monday, however, he returned to the Kremlin and made clear that Russia would keep up its attacks on Chechnya, a territory that has been beyond Russia's control since the army withdrew at the end of a 1994-96 war.
Western countries "have no right to criticize Russia for exterminating bandits, murderers who cut off their victims' heads, and terrorists on its territory," Yeltsin said.
The Chechnya crisis is expected to be one of the main issues this week in Istanbul, Turkey, where Yeltsin is scheduled to attend a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Russia has been a strong supporter of the OSCE, saying it should play a larger role in European security. But OSCE countries have been among the leading critics of Russia's offensive in Chechnya.
Brushing aside the criticism, Yeltsin praised the Russian troops who last week captured Chechnya's second-largest city, Gudermes, saying they carried out the operation "without losing a single person."
The Russians now hold much of Chechnya and have advanced to the outskirts of the capital, Grozny. Russia plans to complete its main military operations in the breakaway territory by the end of December, the head of the army's general staff, Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin said.
"The main bandit formations are planned for destruction before the end of the year," Kvashnin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
However, he said it would take longer to root out small groups of rebel fighters that operate in units of 10 to 20 men.
In Chechnya, Russian Su-24 bombers, Su-25 attack planes and helicopter gunships pounded suspected rebel bases, carrying out 70 missions in five towns on Sunday, the military said.
Russia says the operation in Chechnya is intended to crush Islamic militants who twice invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan and who were blamed for apartment bombings that killed 300 people in Russia.
But the campaign increasingly appears aimed at reasserting Moscow's control over Chechnya, which has been effectively independent for the past three years.