In early July, Russia stepped up its “mopping-up operations” against Chechnya’s civilian populace, thereby prompting a new large-scale exodus of refugees into Ingushetia. The operations were conducted in two villages–Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya–located on the border with the Ingush Republic that had previously been designated “safe zones” for refugees. “They put up a tent in which they tortured people with electric shocks,” Liza Musaeva, director of the Ingush office of the human rights organization Memorial, told Maura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times. “They were also beating people up outdoors, right under the sun. We have spoken to people whose bodies bear knife and bayonet cuts. One person even had a cross carved on his back.” Human rights groups asserted that many of the civilians who had disappeared in the sweeps had then been summarily executed and that the aim of the operations appeared to be collective punishment. Both practices, of course, constitute war crimes (Los Angeles Times, July 7).
The cleansing operation in western Chechnya replicated the escalation of such operations observable in a number of locations within the republic. In Kurchaloe, for example, one resident recalled: “They would break into the houses and line up all men aged 15 and older against the wall, point guns at the back of their heads and demand money [between 1,000 and 3,000 rubles].” If the residents could not produce the money, then armed soldiers would loot “televisions, refrigerators, even carpets” (L.A. Times, July 7). In the village of Assinovskaya, an estimated 500 men, ages 15 to 50, were forced to stand on their knees in a pit at the edge of the village. “They ordered us not to move and beat some people with rifle buts, [attacked] them with dogs and tortured [them] with electric shockers,” one eyewitness told the Associated Press (AP, July 4).
The heads of administration of the Chechen settlements of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, Vakha Arsamakoev and Nazarbek Terkhoev, announced that, as a result of the “unjustifiably harsh character” of the special operations, almost all of the 26,000 Chechen refugees living in three camps for displaced persons in the two villages were now on their way to seek refuge in Ingushetia. The two administrators submitted their resignations to Stanislav Il’yasov, the pro-Moscow prime minister of Chechnya (Izvestia, July 6). According to Gazeta.ru, eyewitnesses reported that, in Sernovodsk, local residents had been gathered into mosques and a ransom had then been demanded for each of them–200 rubles per inhabitant of Sernovodsk, and 500 rubles per dweller in a refugee camp (Gazeta.ru, July 6).
Stanislav Il’yasov, Gazeta.ru wrote, refused to accept the resignations of the heads of administration of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya. He promised them that those guilty of the “punitive operation” would be brought to justice. If they were not, he pledged, “then he would himself resign.” On July 6, Il’yasov met in Djohar (Grozny) with FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev; presidential representative Viktor Kazantsev; the president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev; Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow chief of administration of Chechnya; and other leaders to discuss the developing scandal (Gazeta.ru, July 6). Earlier in the day, the head of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, Boris Gryzlov, had curtly dismissed Il’yasov’s views as “mistaken.” “All juridical norms,” he said, had been observed during the course of the special operations (RIA Novosti, July 6). Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky and the Russian human rights representative in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, did not deem it even necessary to comment on the scandal. At the meeting in held Djohar on July 6, it was decided that “the [pro-Moscow] procuracy of Chechnya will conduct an investigation into the circumstances of the operations by the federal forces in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya” (Gazeta.ru, July 9).