Yesterday the commanders of the military operation in Chechnya gave an ultimatum to the Chechen fighters located in Djohar, the capital of the breakaway republic, to give up by Saturday, December 11. The federal forces have opened a corridor for both civilians and “repentant” fighters to leave the capital. According to leaflets which federal aircraft dropped on the city, the fighters must leave the city with their weapons on their left shoulders and be holding white material–a white flag, if you will. Following the deadline, everyone left in Djohar will be considered a fighter and be targeted for destruction (Russian agencies, December 6).
It is unlikely that the Chechen fighters will capitulate. During the 1994-1996 military campaign there was not a single instance of Chechen fighters being taken prisoner en masse. It is more likely that the Kremlin is not expecting a capitulation, and their ultimatum was simply designed to blunt international criticism for totally destroying the Chechen capital.
The impending deadline, of course, raises grave questions about the fate of Djohar’s civilian population. There are various estimates of the number of civilians left in the Chechen capital. The Kremlin claims that some 4,000 rebel fighters and roughly the same number of civilians remain, while Western sources estimate the number of civilians at 30,000 (CNN, ORT, December 6).
The Kremlin’s ultimatum is almost an exact parallel to the ultimatum made by General Konstan Pulikovsky in August 1994. In that instance, after Chechen fighters unexpectedly seized back the Chechen capital from the federal forces, Pulikovsky demanded that the capital’s civilians leave the city via a special corridor to remain open for two days.
The Monitor’s correspondent, who was in the Chechen capital during that period, can testify to the fact that Pulikovsky’s ultimatum sparked genuine panic among the civilian population. There was no transportation operating in the city, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to walk dozens of kilometers through the destroyed capital. Many old people simply did not have the strength to walk that far, and some who tried to do so died along the road. It is worth noting that a majority of those who fled the city after Pulikovsky’s ultimatum were ethnic Russians, because Chechens had sent their families to live with relatives in the countryside. It is probable that the current ultimatum will put the civilians of Djohar in an even more tragic situation. Following the commencement of the current military campaign, a majority of the civilians, recalling the actions of the federal forces during the previous war, fled the city, leaving only fighters and old people clearly in no condition to leave the capital on their own.
The fact that the Kremlin did not think about the fate of Chechnya’s civilians when it launched the current military operation is causing increasing irritation in the international community. The Council of Europe plans to consider the option of excluding Russia from its ranks. Meanwhile Moscow has given acting OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek permission to visit the North Caucasus from December 14-15. Vollebaek’s itinerary will include Ingushetia, Dagestan and the regions of Chechnya controlled by federal forces (Russian agencies, December 6).
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