The Moscow Oblast Court today will take up a controversial case involving a group of Russian Interior Ministry officers, who are accused of negligence that led to the deaths of federal soldiers in Chechnya. The trial was set to begin on January 14, but was postponed to today. The charges involve an attack that took place in the Staropromyslovsk district of Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, in March 2000, when a group of elite Interior Ministry OMON troops from the town of Sergiev Posad, situated not far from Moscow, was fired on. Twenty-two members of the unit were killed and more than thirty wounded. According to one version of the incident, the Sergiev Posad OMON unit, which had just arrived in the North Caucasus, left the Russian military base at Mozdok, North Ossetia, on March 2 to replace another OMON unit, from the city of Podolsk, based in the Staropromyslovsk district of Djohar. The Sergiev Posad OMON unit was fired on near the settlement of Podgornoe, not far from Djohar. Investigators later concluded that the Podolsk OMON unit was responsible. Another account has it that Chechen rebel snipers fired on the Sergiev Posad OMON unit as it approached a Russian military checkpoint (NTV.ru, January 14).
The Prosecutor General’s Office, however, accepted the first variant–that the Podolsk OMON unit fired on the Sergiev Posad OMON unit as a result of a gross lack of coordination by senior Interior Ministry officers. Three of these are now on trial: General Boris Fadeev, the former deputy head of Moscow Oblast’s Interior Ministry department; Major Igor Tikhonov, former head of the Podolsk OMON special task force; Colonel Mikhail Levchenko, former head of the command group of the Interior Ministry’s force in Chechnya. All three were charged under Article 293, Section 2 of Russia’s Criminal Code–negligence leading to death or other serious consequences.
The March 2, 2000 incident was by no means the only such case during either the first Chechen military campaign or the current one. The Monitor’s correspondent on more than one occasion heard accounts of similar tragic incidents from local residents in Chechnya. Some of these accounts, if true, indicate that some of the shooting incidents between federal units have not been a matter of lack of coordination and mistaken identity, but deliberate.
Three different Russian “power structures” have troops in Chechnya–the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB). There is competition between them and, judging by some local accounts, it has more than occasionally erupted into armed conflict. In any case, there is no question that friendly fire mishaps occur quite often. For example, Radio Liberty correspondent Yury Bagrov reported that in May of this year a Russian police unit located near the settlement of Ulus-Kert, in the Shatoi district, came under artillery fire after federal troops located at a base not far from the settlement saw movement near a wooded area and called in the coordinates to an artillery unit, not bothering to establish first who was being targeted. Several policemen died and dozens were wounded in that incident.
Salambek Maigov, leader of the Anti-War Congress of Chechnya, said that conflicting economic interests sometimes leads to shootouts between Russian servicemen, noting that middle-ranking and senior officers have carved out spheres of economic interest in areas where “zachistki” (antirebel sweeps), have been carried out. Conflicts arise especially often within Russian military units located close to oil wells. Gasoline and diesel fuel is shipped out of Chechnya on military vehicles into neighboring regions on a daily basis and conflicts, sometimes ending in gunfire, often arise between servicemen accompanying these shipments and police manning checkpoints. These incidents are often the result of disagreements between the sellers and buyers over a given shipment’s price. Chechnya’s leadership has tried to bring this form of business under control, and checkpoints have been reinforced with FSB personnel. After several FSB commandos were killed while trying to stop a column of vehicles in the Gudermes district, however, the reinforcements were withdrawn from the checkpoints (Radio Liberty, January 15).
In the view of Sergei Mitrokhin, a State Duma deputy with the Yabloko faction, all these incidents are evidence of the lack of preparedness of the federal power structures in Chechnya. He charged that those responsible for this sorry state of affairs–in particular former Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, who is now secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council–have gone unpunished. Mitrokhin expressed concern over the fact that the trial of the officers accused of negligence in the attack on the Sergiev Posad OMON will be closed to the public. This, he said, shows that the Russian authorities want to hide the real situation in Chechnya. “The people who today are in charge of both the antiterrorist operation and civilian life in Chechnya are not capable of really controlling the troop contingents located in the republic,” Mitrokhin said (Radio Liberty, January 15). The Izvestia.ru website reported yesterday that Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s aide on Chechen issues, had ordered that the true casualty figures in two Chechen rebel ambushes be kept secret. More than thirty Russian servicemen reportedly died in separate attacks yesterday on troop columns in Vedeno and Urus-Martan (see the Monitor, January 17).
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