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Activists Document Apparent Chechen Killings

January 16, 2002|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russia's leading human rights group says it has documented the apparent killing of three men and the disappearance of six others during a Russian "special operation" in Chechnya over the New Year's holidays.

"As interviews with local residents make clear, the special operation was carried out with the crudest violations of human rights and the law," the chairman of the group Memorial, Oleg Orlov, wrote in a letter to Vsevolod Chernov, the chief prosecutor of the separatist republic. Memorial released the letter alleging actions in the village of Tsotsin-Yurt to news organizations Tuesday.

In addition, Orlov said Russian forces detained massive numbers of local residents, most of whom complained that they were insulted and humiliated by the soldiers. About 80 residents said they were "cruelly beaten" during their detentions, which took place between Dec. 30 and Jan. 3.

Russian soldiers continued firing at suspected rebels even after being informed that civilians were in the line of fire, according to information collected by Memorial, and used two detainees as "human shields" during the battle. Witnesses said that the two men were still alive when the battle ended but that their bodies turned up shortly afterward near the local military headquarters.

"Both bodies were mutilated," Orlov wrote. "Ears, noses and genitals had been cut off."

Memorial also documented the apparent disappearance of seven other residents detained by federal forces during the Tsotsin-Yurt operation. On Jan. 7, residents found three bodies on the outskirts of town that appeared to have been blown up with grenades. One was identified by its clothing as belonging to one of the missing detainees; the other two bodies apparently had not been identified.

The operation in Tsotsin-Yurt was only one of a number to take place in recent weeks as Russian military leaders have sought to use the harsh winter weather and lack of vegetation to root out separatist rebels. In December alone, Memorial documented the apparent killings of more than two dozen civilians in the republic.

The commander of Russia's joint forces in the region, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, told the Krasnaya Zvezda military newspaper that there will be no letup in such operations.

"About a hundred militants, including a few dozen chieftains," were killed in "successive and continuous special operations" in the towns of Tsotsin-Yurt, Novaya Zhizn, Kurchaloi and Argun, Moltenskoi told the newspaper.

About 100 residents of Tsotsin-Yurt picketed the Russian regional headquarters in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Tuesday to protest the operations. A similar protest drew about 500 in Argun, where a "special operation" has been underway since Jan. 3.

After criticism from Western governments and from human rights groups, Russian military officials have said they have stopped conducting house-to-house document sweeps, known as zachistka operations, and have lifted curfews.

But Orlov and other human rights activists complain that the change is in name only.

"There are no more zachistkas, but there are 'special operations' to check residency registrations and locate members of illegal military groups," Orlov wrote in a statement after a meeting with Moltenskoi and Chernov. "There is no more curfew on the territory of the Chechen republic, but movement is curtailed for certain hours of the day to permit counterterrorist operations."

In an interview with Polish journalists released late Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin said, "The army, in fact, is not conducting any military activity there." But he went on, in an apparent contradiction, "There are only local operations."

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