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Russia: Rights Groups Say Brutality On Rise Among Russian Troops In Chechnya

  • Valentinas Mite

Human rights organizations say Russian federal forces in Chechnya are continuing to attack civilians and that repressions are taking on new and ever more brutal forms. Rights activists say federal forces are scaling back so-called mopping-up operations but are stepping up targeted operations against specific individuals and families.

Prague, 21 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Two human rights organizations, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and Russia's Memorial, say Russian federal forces are continuing to brutalize civilians in Chechnya and that their tactics are becoming increasingly severe.

In its recently released 2002 annual report, HRW says any steps toward reform in Russia were "entirely eclipsed by continued atrocities committed in Chechnya, which remained the region's most intense human rights crisis."

Eliza Musaeva heads Memorial's office in Ingushetia, the Russian republic bordering Chechnya and a home for tens of thousands of civilians who have fled Chechnya since the latest war began in 1999. With no human rights groups actually based in Chechnya -- both Memorial and HRW say Russian authorities have forbidden their observers to enter Chechnya, and the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, expired on 31 December -- they depend heavily on refugees for information about the situation in the breakaway republic.

Musaeva said the nature of the conflict appears to have changed in recent months, but not for the better. There have long been allegations of brutality and abuse by federal forces in the conflict, now in its fourth year. But now, Musaeva said, Russian troops are altering their tactics. "The situation has changed a little bit. I do not mean it has become less severe. What has changed are the tendencies. The military has stopped their massive "mopping-up" operations [zachistki], which attracted such enormous attention, and have started targeted operations, usually carried out at night. The results are: People disappear, their corpses are being blown up, and the population is powerless," Musaeva said.

Musaeva said the number of unexplained disappearances rose dramatically last year, with more than 450 cases, or nearly half the total disappearances since the war began in the autumn of 1999. "An official in the Chechen Interior Ministry said on television that during a single 10-day period in January, in a single district, Grozny's Staropromyslovskii district, nearly 10 people disappeared as a result of being detained by federal forces. That is only one region, and only over a [period] of 10 or 12 days," Musaeva said.

Musaeva said there is a critical difference between mopping-up operations and the targeted actions that now appear to be on the rise. Troops engaged in mopping up typically surround a village or a block of houses, taking away men of fighting age -- usually for execution -- but for the most part leaving civilians behind. Several such operations were reported last week in the cities of Argun, Shemaskhi, and Mesker-Yurt.

During targeted operations, she said, soldiers select a specific family house or apartment. They arrive at night, wearing masks and carrying no identification. They take away not only young men but occasionally women as well. Most of these people vanish without a trace. Sometimes, their mutilated bodies are found buried in a remote location.

Oleg Orlov works in Memorial's Moscow office. He said the number of disappearances in Chechnya began to rise following the Moscow hostage crisis last October, when armed militants stormed a crowded theater and took some 800 people hostage and demanded an end to the war in Chechnya.

Orlov sees a clear connection between the hostage crisis and the increase in disappearances in Chechnya. "It is somehow connected with [the hostage crisis]. The abduction of people increased radically. People are disappearing in bigger numbers than ever before. It is clear that it is not the work of the armed [Chechen] opposition, because the armed opposition has no armored vehicles. In these cases, [armed] people are coming in armored vehicles, wearing camouflage uniforms and masks, and are taking people away or sometimes killing them on the spot," Orlov said.

Orlov also said the rising number of targeted operations and abductions is causing concern among the pro-Russian Chechen administration. "Just after [the hostage crisis], officials from the pro-Russian administration appealed to Russian President [Vladimir Putin]. The appeal was signed by a large number of administration heads, Chechen officials, regional heads, some Chechen government ministers -- all completely pro-Russian people. They expressed their concern over the growing numbers of people disappearing and being killed by federal troops," Orlov said.

Aleksandr Petrov of HRW's Moscow office recently visited Ingushetia and gave a more cautious estimation of the amount of brutality taking place in the region. But like Orlov, Petrov said the behavior of Russian troops has changed markedly since the hostage drama. "Russian military personnel often come back to the theme of [the hostage crisis] during their actions. For example, there are slogans painted on some of the armored vehicles and other vehicles that the military use saying "For Nord-Ost" [after the name of the theater production], suggesting that the troops are taking some kind of revenge for the events in Moscow. Very often, they refer to Nord-Ost during sweeps, during detentions," Petrov said.

Revenge appears to be a factor in other Russian operations in Chechnya. Petrov said that Russian forces are also blowing up buildings where they suspect militants may be hiding. He said that several buildings were blown up in Khankala after the rebels shot down a Russian helicopter in August, killing 119 servicemen.

Regarding the Moscow hostage crisis, HRW has criticized the hostage takers and says the armed militants "failed to respect the laws of war" when they took hostages in the Moscow theater. Petrov added, however, that the number of hostages in the October crisis is far fewer than those abducted and terrorized over time by federal forces in Chechnya.