MOSCOW — The Kremlin's handpicked leader of Chechnya hinted Monday that he will resign unless military officials responsible for a new wave of violence against civilians are brought to justice.
It was the strongest statement to date by Akhmad Kadyrov, a Muslim cleric appointed by Moscow a year ago to lead Chechnya's temporary government. And it came as reports of torture and other abuses by Russian troops continued to mount.
Kadyrov is the linchpin in the Kremlin's plans for the breakaway republic, the Chechen face who gives legitimacy to the Moscow-appointed administration. In the past, he has stood by Russian policies and blamed Chechen rebels for the region's violence.
But on Monday, he convened a meeting of military officials in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and accused them of "criminal acts."
"I did not take on this heavy burden so that people would be abused," Kadyrov said. "I took it on to save them, and I will not permit anyone to treat them lawlessly."
Violent Sweeps Mount in Last Two Weeks
Several Chechens recounted their experiences with a recent Russian sweep in the republic.
Musa Sharipov, 26, said he was held at gunpoint in a field within earshot of a truck. "We could clearly hear moaning and crying and shouting coming out of the truck as more new people would be dragged into it," he said. "We figured the soldiers were torturing people with electric shocks."
Two Russian investigatory bodies, the civilian procurator and the military procurator, have opened inquiries into the alleged abuses, Russian news services reported.
"I plan and hope to inform the president personally about everything here," Kadyrov said. "We find it impossible to work here in such conditions. Everything that we are trying to do here is reduced to naught with a single move."
Since Russia reoccupied the republic more than a year ago, Russian forces have frequently conducted sweeps, known as zachistka operations, in which they detain Chechen men on the pretext of checking their documents. Often, the men must bribe their way out of custody. Some detainees turn up dead; others are never seen again.
The frequency and severity of the sweeps escalated sharply in the last two weeks, with reports of widespread abuses in the villages of Sernovodsk, Assinovskaya and Kurchaloi. Several pro-Moscow Chechen officials resigned in protest, and Chechen civilians staged protests to demand an end to the operations.
Alexander Vladimirov, vice president of Moscow's independent Collegium of Military Experts, said pro-Moscow Chechen officials were not given warning of the sweeps, and that's what prompted the backlash.
"It is an open secret that the Chechen administration teems with traitors who only pretend that they are on the federal side," Vladimirov said. "Of course, in a situation like this, people like Kadyrov have a reason to fret and fume.
"As for Kadyrov's complaint that . . . the soldiers were unnecessarily severe--that was precisely the plan of the Russian troops," he added. "Cruelty is natural and necessary until the conflict is truly localized and there is no help to the rebels coming from outside Russia.
"Maybe zachistka operations are not the best method," Vladimirov added, "but no one has yet invented anything better."
Russian media have reported no new operations in recent days, but military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said that does not mean that Russian military leaders have been cowed by the criticism.
"Since the military does not take orders from local Chechen politicians, and no one among the top brass--never mind the rank and file--intends to listen to what this [pro-Kremlin] puppet government has to say, the practice of mopping-up operations will continue," Felgenhauer said.
Meanwhile, new details of the zachistka operations--including reports of beatings, electric shocks, torture and large-scale extortion--have emerged.
In an interview with The Times, 22-year-old Ruslan Mirzhoyev described how Russian soldiers broke into his house in Assinovskaya early July 3, pulled his T-shirt up so it covered his head, and shoved him into the back of a truck with dozens of other men. They were driven to a large field, thrown into an earthen pit and forced to kneel or bend over with their legs spread.
"It was out of that pit that people were plucked one by one and taken into the back of a truck," Mirzhoyev said. "When they walked me into that compartment, they immediately sat me down on a chair, tied my hands to it and attached electric wires to my fingers on both hands. It was the first thing they did, and only after that did they start to ask me questions.
"Before I realized what they were talking about, they flipped the switch on, and I felt my hands and my entire body paralyzed with electric current," he said. "The spasms were excruciating. They repeated it three times. When they realized I had nothing to tell them, they dragged me out and threw me back into the pit."
As he stood to catch his breath, he was suddenly struck on the head, he said.
"I later realized that one of the soldiers hurled a stone at me," Mirzhoyev said. "In fact, they would hurl anything at us, anything that happened to be at hand--bottles, stones, sticks. I was covered in blood. I bled for a couple of hours, but no one offered me any aid."
Detainees Released in Middle of Night
Mirzhoyev and others said the Russians forced them to sign statements saying they had no complaints about their treatment in custody. Then they were released, late at night, well after curfew, when Russian soldiers have orders to shoot anything that moves in the dark. They were ordered to walk toward a nearby town, along a road guarded by Russians.
Instead, under cover of darkness, the former detainees walked the opposite way and made it home in the middle of the night.
Times special correspondent Mayerbek Nunayev in Chechnya and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.