While the Kremlin’s ultimatum to Chechen fighters located in the Chechen capital of Djohar expires tomorrow, the evacuation of inhabitants of the capital via a corridor set up by the Russian forces has hardly begun. As of Wednesday, only several people had left Djohar along that corridor, but Russian military officials did report that Chechen fighters have made several attempts to escape the city, but were blocked by federal troops. Meanwhile, Radio Liberty reported that a group of anonymous officers from the Russian military command in the North Caucasus sent an open letter to the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, in which they stated that once the December 11 deadline arrives, federal forces plan to destroy tens of thousands of people in the Chechen capital (ORT, Radio Liberty, December 8).
There are several theories as to why civilians are not leaving Djohar. Russian military officials have suggested that Chechen fighters in the capital are preventing civilians from leaving so that they can use the civilians as human shields. A more likely explanation is that a majority of the leaflets which federal aviation dropped on the capital, which warned the inhabitants to leave, landed in the unpopulated Zavodsky district. Many inhabitants therefore know nothing about the ultimatum. Residents have spent the last several weeks in basements due to air strikes, and have had no access to radio or television for some time. In addition, very little transportation is functioning in Djohar, and the checkpoint set up by the Russian forces through which escapees are required to pass is located in the town of Pervomaisk, fifteen kilometers from the center of Djohar. According to various estimates, 20,000 to 40,000 residents remain in the capital. Some refuse to leave their homes out of fear of marauders. Others, however, have managed to leave the city–even by routes other than the one established by the federal forces. Yesterday, some who had reached the town of Achkoi-Martan, which is under federal control, asked the federal authorities to extend the deadline, protesting that a majority of the capital’s residents still know nothing about it (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 9).
According to the Russian military, there are no indications that the Chechen fighters who have dug in plan to surrender, and the fighters have ringed the city with containers filled with ammonia and other highly toxic and flammable substances. It is possible, however, that the Russian forces have put out this rumor in order to explain away the results of a chemical attack that they plan to launch against the Chechen fighters.
Whatever the case, it is already clear that the battle for Djohar could wind up being a humanitarian catastrophe. Earlier this week, the Kremlin, apparently worried about the possible international reaction to such developments, seemed to be hoping that the capital’s civilian population simply leaves. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, during a December 8 inspection tour of the officially designated crossing point for refugees from Djohar, said that the crossing point would be used beginning on December 11. Rushailo’s comments seemed to indicate that the Russian authorities, perhaps due to international pressure, were backing down from their threat to begin a final assault on Djohar immediately after the deadline expires. Today, Minister of Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu offered to meet with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to discuss possible joint efforts in ensuring the safety of civilians seeking to leave the Chechen capital. Shoigu emphasized, however, that such talks would not cover political issues. Meanwhile, Dmitri Yakushkin, President Boris Yeltsin’s spokesman, vowed today that Russia would pursue a “tough policy” in Chechnya “until the nest of terrorism in the North Caucasus is destroyed” (Russian agencies, December 10).
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