Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 35

The Russian military now controls very nearly the entire Vedeno Gorge, which had been the main rebel bastion in southern Chechnya. According to Moscow, the rebels are no longer putting up strong resistance there. According to NTV television, however, federal forces are pacifying the area by aiming tank fire not at the mountain ranges, where the rebels are hiding out, but at the villages in the area. If fighting does break out, if the rebels do attack federal posts, then the Russian military will in turn open fire on the villages, and the issue of civilian casualties could arise again.

Yesterday, several dozen Chechen fighters in the region voluntarily surrendered–the second such incident in the current Chechen conflict. Some four weeks ago, some 100 rebels voluntarily put down their weapons in Djohar, the Chechen capital. That some have surrendered is significant. During the 1994-1996 military campaign, there were no recorded instances of Chechen fighters surrendering. It would appear that the rebel leaders are also feeling that the military tide has turned against them, and may be planning measures aimed at trying to reverse that tide. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s point man on Chechnya, said yesterday that Russia’s special services had received information that the rebels are planning a series of terrorist acts and military attacks in the Chechen lowlands. Yastrzhembsky said that radio intercepts of conversations between the rebel commanders and Aslan Maskhadov indicated that the Chechen president views such attacks as their last chance. Maskhadov reportedly declared that Putin had been sentenced to death. Maskhadov also allegedly told the rebel commanders: “Slice up and trample every Russian who falls into your hands, and get pleasure from it” (NTV, February 18).

That Yastrzhembsky’s quotes for Maskhadov were made up cannot be excluded. At the start of the last war, in December 1994, Russian media reported that then Chechen President Djohar Dudaev had ordered that all Russian journalists be shot as spies. It soon became clear that this was disinformation aimed at dissuading Russian journalists from covering the war. In general, the information war over Chechnya today is no less significant than the shooting war. This explains why Yastrzhembsky focused on a recent article in the French newspaper Le Monde about the filtration camp set up by the Russian authorities in the Chechen town of Chernokozov. The article quoted former detainees as claiming that children were being held there, some of whom had died as a result of beatings and torture. It also claimed that guards in the filtration camp raped the bodies of dead detainees right in front of other inmates. Yastrzhembsky said yesterday that the Le Monde article was crude disinformation, asserted that only adults were held in the camps and announced that journalists will soon be allowed to visit the Chernokozov filtration camp (NTV, Radio Liberty, February 17).

The Le Monde article may indeed contain distortions or exaggerations. It is unlikely that children are being held in the camps, if only because this would expressly violate Russian law. There were certainly no reports of children being detained during the last war. The current reports of torture in the filtration camps ring true, however, given that during the last Chechen conflict, in which the federal forces were less harsh than they are now, filtration camp inmates–including teenage males–were beaten and tortured. During the last war, Russian human rights groups, including Memorial, collected testimony from former detainees about the use of torture in filtration camps. The human rights group Amnesty International yesterday called on the Russian authorities to allow Russian and international human rights activists into Chechnya to inspect the filtration camps (Amnesty International press release, February 17).

Meanwhile, Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, said yesterday that preliminary data suggest that thousands of civilians have died as a result of the current military operation in Chechnya (Russian agencies, February 17). On February 16, Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, cited allegations that Russian forces in Chechnya had carried out indiscriminate bombing, murders and rape. Robinson called on Moscow to safeguard human rights (Reuters, February 17).