MOSCOW -- Widespread kidnappings of civilians in Chechnya, most of them allegedly by government forces, have reached the level of a crime against humanity, Human Rights Watch said yesterday in a report that also condemned the European Union for taking no action on the problem.
In France, Chechnya's Moscow-backed president, Alu Alkhanov, acknowledged human rights abuses in Chechnya but said ''the situation has been improving" and reports of widespread kidnappings in the breakaway province were exaggerated. He also ruled out negotiations with the separatists on independence, autonomy, or even a peaceful solution to the conflict.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch issued its report as the Council of Europe hosted informal talks on Chechnya's future in Strasbourg, France. The council is Europe's top human rights watchdog.
The report said thousands of people have vanished in Chechnya since 1999, when the latest conflict between Russian forces and separatists began. It documented several dozen new cases of disappearances that it said had occurred mostly within recent months.
''Witnesses now tell us that the atmosphere of utter arbitrariness and intimidation is 'worse than a war,' " said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division.
Human Rights Watch also condemned the European Union for failing to introduce a resolution on Chechnya this year at the 53-nation UN Commission on Human Rights, which is now in session in Geneva. In both 2000 and 2001, the UN commission passed resolutions calling on the Russian government to stop abuses in Chechnya.
''It is astounding that the European Union has decided to take no action on Chechnya at the commission," Denber said.
Human Rights Watch cited an estimate by local human rights groups that 3,000 to 5,000 people have gone missing since the beginning of the current conflict in 1999, the second in a decade. Russian authorities deny all responsibility for their fate or knowledge of their whereabouts, it said.
Human rights defenders have accused Russian security forces and their pro-Moscow Chechen allies of widespread abuses against civilians in Chechnya, including kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
Chechen rebels have mounted a growing number of terrorist acts, culminating in September's seizure of 1,000 hostages at a school in southern Russia, where some 330 people, about half of them children, were killed.
At the Council of Europe's Strasbourg meeting, Alkhanov said he was aware of human rights abuses and said his administration was working to improve the situation.
''We do admit that human rights and legal abuse is still a reality in Chechnya. . . . The republic's leadership has been working really hard to improve the situation," he said.