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Alarmed by its findings that civilians have been summarily executed by Russian forces in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch called on the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to begin an urgent investigation of human rights violations in the war zone.

Condemning what it called "atrocities" committed against civilians in the separatist republic, the New York-based human rights group said an immediate U.N. inquiry could save the lives of innocent people and preserve evidence for use in possible war crimes trials of Russian soldiers.

"The United Nations has a duty at a minimum to send a clear message to the Russian government and armed forces that they are bound to comply with international humanitarian law and that the United Nations will respond with more than rhetorical condemnation of those who violate these obligations," the group said in a letter to the United Nations.

The request for a U.N. investigation in Chechnya could easily be blocked by Russia with its Security Council veto, but Human Rights Watch urged Moscow to abstain so as not to undermine the United Nations' ability to respond to serious human rights violations around the globe.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott today accused Russia of treating Chechen civilians like "terrorists" and conveyed U.S. concern today that Russia was violating international law with its massive military onslaught in the breakaway republic.

After talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Talbott said the United States understood Russia's need to combat terrorism, but said it must be done in compliance with international law.

Human Rights Watch's appeal and Talbott's remarks came as Russian troops reportedly were preparing an assault to capture Grozny, the Chechen capital. But a top Russian commander, Col. Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, said Grozny would be taken in a special operation rather than by storming.

Kazantsev said all of Chechnya would be brought under Russian control within two or three weeks, and that Russian military action could be done by the end of January.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed today that virtually all of Chechnya was under Russian control. Opening a Cabinet meeting in Moscow, Putin said Chechen civilians were helping the Russian forces evict the rebels from their settlements.

Human Rights Watch has gathered detailed information of an alleged massacre in early December after Russian troops seized the village of Alkhan-Yurt.

Based on reports from numerous refugees who have fled the area, the rights group said at least 17 civilians were killed.

Gen. Leonid G. Ivashov, head of the Defense Ministry's international cooperation department, said Russia will conduct a "thorough check" beginning later this week.

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