Chopper Goes Down in Southern Chechnya

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 18

A helicopter ferrying Russian servicemen to an operation in southern Chechnya crashed in the republic’s Shatoi district on April 27, killing everyone aboard. Reports about the number of people killed in the crash of the Mi-8 were contradictory. ITAR-Tass reported on April 27 that 18 people died, including 15 GRU spetsnaz, while Interfax said 17 people were killed – 14 commandos plus three air crewmen. Kommersant on April 28 reported that five GRU officers and 12 other GRU servicemen died in the crash along with three helicopter crewmen, which would mean a total of 20 deaths. Interfax on April 28 quoted a Chechen Interior Ministry source as denying media reports about 20 fatalities. According to “revised information,” the source said, 18 servicemen died in the helicopter crash, among them six officers, including two lieutenant-colonels and a major. The affiliation of the servicemen was also unclear. on April 27 quoted Channel One state television as saying that the servicemen who died were members of the Yug battalion, which is a Chechen Interior Ministry unit. The website, however, also cited an Interfax source who denied that the dead servicemen were from the Yug battalion.

There were also contradictory reports about what brought the chopper down. The Associated Press on April 27 quoted an unnamed official in the Chechen branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry as saying that the Mi-8 went down while flying to southern Chechnya as part of an operation against militants in the mountainous Shatoi district, and that the preliminary indications were that the helicopter was shot down. But according to the AP, a ministry duty officer later said the helicopter crash was an accident that occurred when a rotor blade struck something during an attempt to land. As the AP noted, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov put forward a third version of what happened. “According to information coming from Shatoi district, the crashed helicopter was technically defective; it was not shot down,” the Regnum news agency quoted Kadyrov as saying on April 27. “Some militants are indeed currently blockaded in Shatoi district, but there is no large-scale battle. I assure you that the situation in the Chechen Republic in terms of security is more stable than many other regions of Russia.”

The Chechen separatist website Kavkaz-Center said on April 28 that Kadyrov had reacted “hysterically” to reports that the helicopter had been shot down. “Kadyrov really does have reason to panic,” Kavkaz-Center wrote. “The fact is that Kavkaz-Center has received information that it was not the kaffirs [“infidels,” meaning Russian troops] or the munafiqs [“hypocrites,” meaning pro-Moscow Chechen forces] who carried out a large-scale operation in Shatoi district, but Chechen mujahideen. It was mujahideen who attacked a gang of munafiqs on the morning of Friday, April 27. It was Chechen fighters who surrounded the puppet ‘Yug’ formation in the area of the settlement of Aslambek Sheripov in Shatoi district and delivered a massive blow to it. An operational group of Chechen mujahideen of the Southwestern Front of the VS ChRI [Armed Forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria] (commanded by Amir Tarkhan), which included units of Amir Aslambek and Amir Usman, planned and carried out a large-scale military operation against a gang of ‘Yug’ munafiqs. In the course of executing this military operation, an ambush was set up on the approaches to the battle zone, in the event that the occupation forces tried to transfer reinforcements to the blockaded puppets. Ambush points were also set up on several hills. As the outcome of the military operation proved, the mujahideen command’s plan was completely successful. Furthermore, according to initial reports reaching Kavkaz-Center, losses among the munafiqs and kaffirs were much higher than those mentioned by the Russian media quoting the occupation command. It could be a case of 30-50 occupiers and puppets killed.”

Kommersant on April 28 provided its own detailed account of the events leading up to the helicopter crash. The newspaper reported that on the morning of April 27, a reconnaissance unit of the 22nd GRU spetsnaz brigade, which is based in Rostov Oblast but operates across the North Caucasus, was on a reconnaissance mission in southern Chechnya’s mountains, at a section of the Sharo-Argun River near the village of Khalkiloi. At around 9 a.m., local time, the commandos ran into a unit of as many as 20 rebel fighters under the command of rebel Brigadier General Tarkhan Gaziev, commander of the rebel’s Southwestern Front, who, according to Kommersant, is a close associate of Chechen rebel leader Dokka Umarov. “The scouts ‘recognized’ the Wahhabi amir by the radio call sign Tarkhan, under which he went on the air soon after the start of the battle, trying to contact other units,” Kommersant wrote. According to the newspaper, the commandos opened fire on the rebel fighters, forcing them to fall back along the banks of the Sharo-Argun, and radioed for help. After several minutes, fighters from the Interior Ministry’s Yug battalion and local policemen began heading to the battle scene in armored personnel carriers from the Shatoi district center seven kilometers away, while three Mi-8 helicopter flew in from the military base at Mozdok, North Ossetia, where units of the 22nd GRU spetsnaz brigade are also located. The helicopters were ferrying spetsnaz and prepared to provide air cover using rockets. The choppers arrived at the scene of the battle after slightly more than an hour, but the commandos were unable to find a safe spot to land. As a result, at 11:30 a.m., local time, the lead Mi-8 was forced to hover several meters above a thickly vegetated mountainside to allow the commandos it was ferrying to jump out, which they did. However, when the second helicopter tried to do the same thing, it suddenly crashed. According to Kommersant, it only fell a few meters, meaning that those inside probably only suffered light injuries. Just an instant later, however, the craft exploded and caught fire. According to investigators, the helicopter had several tons of kerosene in its tanks, which caused a huge fire that in turn detonated the ammunition the helicopter was carrying.

Kommersant reported that the remaining two Mi-8s fired into the Sharo-Argun gorge and adjacent slopes and managed to kill three rebel fighters, but that the remaining rebels, including Amir Tarkhan, managed to escape. It is worth noting that on the day of the helicopter crash – April 27 – Interfax quoted an unnamed Chechen security official as saying that Dokka Umarov may have been among the rebel fighters targeted in the Shatoi operation.

While a criminal investigation into possible violations of flight rules has been opened, Kommersant quoted a source in the prosecutor’s office of the Combined Group of Troops and Forces in the North Caucasus as saying that investigators are considering all possible theories for what happened, including technical malfunction, pilot errors and ground fire. The dominant theory is that in depositing the commandos, the helicopter descended too low and its rotor hit the ground. “However, as is asserted in the prosecutor’s office, the hovering helicopter may have been brought down by automatic weapons fire from the militants that, for example, hit the fuel tanks, the anti-torque gearbox or the pilot who was flying the craft,” the newspaper wrote.

Meanwhile, Kavkazky Uzel reported on May 2 that two Interior Ministry officers from Kaluzhskaya Oblast who were on assignment in Chechnya died on May 1 when a powerful improvised explosive device detonated near their armored UAZ automobile as they were driving on the outskirts of Grozny’s Zavodsky district. The Associated Press quoted Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman Magomed Deniev as saying that the explosive device, apparently detonated by remote control, went off as the vehicle was crossing a bridge in a neighborhood that has been plagued by violence.