A helicopter involved in a search for an Mi-24 helicopter gunship that crashed in Chechnya on February 3 itself crashed yesterday. The chopper, an Mi-8, crashed and exploded just minutes after taking from the airfield at Khankala, the main Russian military base in Chechnya, which is located just outside Djohar (Grozny), the republic’s capital. Seven people died and three were seriously injured in yesterday’s crash. Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky announced today that the Military Prosecutor’s Office and the office of Chechnya’s prosecutor had launched a joint investigation into the crash. The most likely cause, he said, was engine failure. However, Chechen rebel sources claimed yesterday that a special rebel unit had shot the Mi-8 down using a high-caliber DShK machinegun, and that no fewer than fifteen armed soldiers were on board at the time of the crash (Gazeta.ru, February 8; Interfax, Kavkaz.org, February 7).
Four Russian helicopters have crashed in Chechnya over the last two weeks. The Russian authorities insist that the crashes were due to technical or mechanical failure. The Chechen rebels, on the other hand, claim that they shot down three of the four. The most lethal of the incidents involved another Mi-8, which crashed on January 27, killing fourteen people, including General Mikhail Rudchenko, deputy interior minister for the Southern federal district, and Major General Nikolai Goridov, deputy commander of the Interior Ministry’s internal troops, who was in charge of the ministry’s contingent in Chechnya. The Chechen rebels claimed that they downed that helicopter using a Russian-made Igla portable surface-to-air missile (see the Monitor, January 28). Two days later, a helicopter ferrying paratroopers was forced to crash-land in Vedeno, in southeast Chechnya, reportedly after being hit by rebel machinegun fire. The next incident was the disappearance of the Mi-24 on February 3 (see the Monitor, February 6). Exactly what happened to the helicopter gunship remains unclear. According to the Russian military, it disappeared when very close to or over its destination, the Khankala base. However, as the pro-rebel Kavkaz.org website noted yesterday, it is surprising that the missing Mi-24 has not yet been found, given that there is very little forest around Khankala, making it, seemingly, virtually impossible for a downed aircraft to simply disappear there (Kavkaz.org, February 7).
Meanwhile, fighting continues on the ground throughout Chechnya. One Interior Ministry soldier was killed and two wounded yesterday when a mine went off on a roadside in northern Chechnya. A local resident who happened to be passing by was also killed by the blast. Three employees of the military commandant’s office in the southern Itumkalinsk district received shrapnel wounds from a bomb blast, after which they were evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Yesterday, Russian checkpoints in Djohar came under fire from automatic weapons and grenade launchers on three different occasions. Two policemen were wounded in those incidents. And a large explosive device consisting of one-and-a-half kilograms of hexogen and sixty rocket-propelled grenades was discovered along the road connecting the towns of Shali and Avtury. It was safely defused.
Russian security forces are continuing a special operation in Shali and surrounding villages. Residents there have complained to the local authorities that Interior Ministry troops have committed abuses during this “zachistka” (mopping up operation). General-Lieutenant Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, who is personally overseeing the operation in and around Shali, noted that representatives of Vladimir Kalamanov, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for human rights in Chechnya, are in the Shali district. Moltenskoi insisted that “legal norms” were being observed. He added, however, that “insignificant excesses” have occurred that “we have resolved on the spot,” but that these incidents are the “rare exception” (Radio Liberty, February 7; see also the Monitor, February 6).
Meanwhile, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s main spokesman on Chechnya, said today that the “antiterrorist” operation in Chechnya would have been over a long time ago had a portion of the republic’s civilian population not backed the rebels. And a segment, he told reporters, continues to “support, harbor and medically treat members of the illegal armed formations, and to participate in direct military action against the federal forces.” Among the reasons for this, he said, were the vendetta tradition and “separatist viewpoints on Chechnya’s future” (RIA Novosti, February 8). Just last December, Yastrzhembsky suggested that this winter would be the last for the Chechen rebels, who, he claimed were running out of ammunition, food, medicine and warm clothing and were internationally isolated (see Chechnya Weekly, December 18, 2001). At the beginning of 2001, when Putin handed over the command of the operation in Chechnya from the military to the Federal Security Service (FSB), Yastrzhembsky claimed the operation had de facto been completed “a rather long time ago,” with the destruction of large and mid-size separatist formations (see the Chechen Weekly, January 23, 2001).
OSCE SILENT AS RUSSIAN MILITARY STAYS PUT IN GEORGIA.