Despite recent steps by the Russian military leadership ostensibly aimed at reducing human rights abuses by federal forces in Chechnya, the head of a leading Russian human rights group yesterday painted a grim picture of the human rights situation in the breakaway republic. Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial, told a press conference in Moscow that since July 2000, some 2,000 people detained by Russian forces in Chechnya had disappeared without a trace and that more than 1,000 of the republic’s inhabitants had been killed during so-called “zachistki” (antiguerrilla) sweeps.
Such sweeps are being carried out, Orlov said, in violation of Order No. 80, which was issued this past March by General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, with the ostensible aim of imposing greater control and discipline over forces carrying out such sweeps. Contrary to the order, Russian security personnel are not identifying themselves during such special operations, which, Orlov said, are also being carried out without the participation of representatives from Chechnya’s civilian administration. Meanwhile the homes of local inhabitants continued to be looted and vandalized. These methods, Orlov noted, “make all the efforts of the federal forces to defeat the [rebel] fighters, to defeat terrorism … simply fruitless. The methods of carrying out the so-called counterterrorist operation in the Chechen Republic are in reality increasing the rebels’ base of support and in addition–and this, in my view, is very dangerous–can strengthen the base of support of that part of the rebels who really can be referred to as terrorists” (Radio Liberty, May 14).
The previous day, Russia’s human rights ombudsman, Oleg Mironov, accused the Defense Ministry of hiding the real number of soldiers killed in action in Chechnya. During a press conference in which he presented his annual human rights report, Mironov accused the military only of understating the number of casualties among federal troops during the so-called antiterrorist operation in Chechnya. The government’s human rights watchdog, however, gave no indication as to what he thought was the number of troops killed in Chechnya, including those from the army, the Interior Ministry and various additional units, let alone about the thousands of Chechens who have died in the fighting (Chechenpress.com, May 14).
On May 13, the same day as Mironov’s press conference, a source in the Russian military command in Chechnya told the Interfax news agency that 2,498 Russian military personnel had been killed and 6,325 wounded in the North Caucasus from August 7, 1999 to May 11, 2002. The toll did not include soldiers from other services, including the Interior Ministry and FSB, who were killed or wounded during the ongoing military operation in Chechnya (see the Monitor, May 13). Other sources, however, have much higher figures. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, for example, claims that at least 10,000 soldiers have died and more than 25,000 have been wounded during the current military operation in Chechnya. The committee has promised that it will soon release new information about those who were killed or wounded in the Chechnya campaign but which are not included in the official statistics.
Meanwhile, the Russian military has been expressing concern about a possible large-scale rebel attack on the Chechen capital–something that Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov all but promised this week in comments broadcast by the underground rebel radio station. The Russian military claims to have picked up indications that a new group of fighters has arrived in Djohar. According to military sources, a conspiratorial network of rebels already operating in the capital is providing the new arrivals with places to live and weapons. A military source told the Interfax news agency that the new arrivals are mainly youths aged 15 to 16 who belong to a teip (clan) closely connected to rebel field commander Shamil Basaev and who “have been brought up on the idea of sacrificing themselves in the name of a free Ichkeria.”
Military officials are also claiming that members of the pro-Moscow Chechen government’s police force are assisting the infiltration of fighters–including, they say, female snipers–into Djohar. “There have been numerous cases of members of illegal armed formations captured with documents and passes issued by employees of Chechnya’s Ministry of Internal Affairs,” one anonymous military official claimed (Gazeta.ru, May 14). Regardless of how accurate these accusations are, they may help explain why President Vladimir Putin backed away earlier this month from his initially stated intention to hand control of the counterterrorist operation in Chechnya over to the republic’s Interior Ministry (see Chechnya Weekly, May 14).
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