By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A historic first public session of U.S. and Russian lawmakers turned into a bitter clash over the status of Kosovo on Thursday, with accusations flying of slander and rewriting history.
Amid a rocky period in U.S.-Russian relations, House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Lantos organized the get-together to try to set the stage for President George W. Bush's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin early next month.
Lantos insisted after the 2-1/2 hour open session that there was more common ground than disagreement between the two sides -- six from the Russian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and a similar number of Americans from Lantos' panel.
"We do not sweep our differences under the rug," the California Democrat said.
But one Russian, Natalia Narochnitskaya, irked the Americans by questioning Lantos' statement that there had been ethnic cleansing in the 1990s in Kosovo, a Serbian province of 2 million people dominated by ethnic Albanians.
There had been cases where corpses of people who died in various circumstances in the province were gathered together to make it look like mass killings, Narochnitskaya said, noting for the record that she was a history professor.
"Nobody in their right mind would deny that ethnic cleansing happened in Kosovo," said Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat. "She may be a professor of history but she doesn't have the right to rewrite history."
Kosovo says 12,000 Albanian civilians were killed in ethnic warfare between Serbs and Albanians in the province. Serbia puts the toll of civilians and combatants at 9,000, of which 6,500 were Albanian.
Independent tallies range from 7,500 to 12,000 victims, mostly Albanian civilians who were murdered.
The province has been under U.N. administration for almost eight years, but Europeans and the United States are pushing for Kosovo's independence from Serbia.
Russia, an ally of Serbia which has veto power on the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, opposes independence for Kosovo.
Narochnitskaya said the Kosovo Albanians were Muslims and warned: "You are creating a militant Islamic state ... in the center of Europe."
"It's slander," Engel shot back, saying that the Albanian population were secular Muslims and not militants.
Before the talk turned to Kosovo, discussions had politely covered other areas of dispute, from Russia's human rights record under Putin to missile defense, where the two sides disagree over Bush's plan to put a missile shield in Eastern Europe.
Like a mini-superpower summit from the Cold War era, the two sides exchanged gifts and professions of admiration for one another's peoples. Large Russian and American flags decorated the meeting room.
The Russians' chairman, Konstantin Kosachev, said he was open to a suggestion from Lantos that Russian and U.S. lawmakers try to visit Iran together for meetings with the Tehran government.
Lantos has tried in vain to get a visa to Iran and he appealed to Kosachev for help.