On February 3 an Mi-24 helicopter gunship belonging to Russia’s Federal Border Guards Service disappeared in Chechnya. The Mi-24 was accompanying an Mi-8 helicopter to the Chechen village of Tuskharoi, where the latter was to pick up six sick border guards and transport them to a military hospital in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Both helicopters aborted the mission due to bad weather, but while the Mi-8 safely made it to the city of Beslan in the North Ossetian republic of Alania, the Mi-24 disappeared on its way to the Russian military base at Khankala. The fate of the helicopter and its crew of three remains unknown. Yesterday the search for the missing chopper was halted temporarily due to more thick fog (Gazeta.ru, February 4-5).
On January 27, an Mi-8 carrying fourteen people, including two Interior Ministry generals and three colonels, crashed, killing all aboard. Immediately after the crash, the Chechen rebels claimed that they had brought down the helicopter with a Russian-made Igla portable surface-to-air missile. Although Russian officials played down that possibility, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched a criminal investigation into the incident on the basis of Article 205 of Russia’s Criminal Code, covering “terrorism” (see the Monitor, January 28). Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky subsequently said that investigators had concluded that the Mi-8 crashed as a result of an explosion on board the craft. Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian armed forces’ staff, suggested that a bomb may have been placed aboard the helicopter. Another official–Vladimir Elagin, federal minister for Chechen affairs–said that the craft could have exploded as the result of an accidental detonation of a grenade belonging to one of the guards on board (RIA Novosti, January 28; Polit.ru, January 29). Yesterday, Viktor Ampilogov, deputy presidential representative in the Southern federal district, said that the Mi-8 probably did crash as a result of an explosion, but that it remained to be determined whether the explosion occurred inside the craft or “from the outside” (Kavkaz.strana.ru, February 5). On January 29, another Mi-8 was forced to crash land near the Chechen village of Dyshne-Vedeno after being hit by rebel machinegun fire. The ten Russian servicemen safely evacuated the helicopter, which then burst into flames (Strana.ru, January 29).
Even if the disappearance of the Mi-24 turns out to have been the result of a technical or mechanical malfunction, the fact will not cast a very flattering light on the state of readiness of the Russian forces in Chechnya. The Monitor’s correspondent has on more than one occasion flown on Russian military helicopters in Chechnya and can attest to the fact that many of them are in poor condition and that it is not uncommon for pilots to fly while intoxicated.
The Russian forces in Chechnya have been experiencing problems on the ground as well as in the air, with the rebels continuing to carry out hit-and-run attacks on practically a daily basis. On February 2 soldiers riding on two Russian armored personnel carriers accompanying electrical engineers in Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, came under fire from one of the burned-out apartment buildings near the Central Market. Three Russian servicemen were wounded in the incident. According to eyewitnesses, the sniper, a young man in civilian clothing, subsequently disappeared amid the ruins. On February 1, a Russian soldier was killed and two others wounded when a Russian military truck ferrying servicemen hit a mine in the capital. A similar incident took place near the village of Mesker-Yurt, just outside the capital, when a homemade mine blew up under an Interior Ministry armored personnel carrier. One serviceman was injured in that incident (Radio Liberty, February 1-2). Today, the official car belonging to Ali Alavdinov, deputy to Stanislav Ilyasov, head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow government, was blown up in Djohar when Alavdinov was being driven to work. He was unharmed, but two of his bodyguards were injured (Polit.ru, February 6).
Meanwhile, criminal charges have been filed against eight policemen from the Chechen village of Starye Atagi, who were arrested on February 2 for allegedly attempting to impede a Russian security forces’ “zachistka” (mopping-up operation). At the same time, members of a commission set up on the orders of Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, arrived in Starye Atagi to investigate complaints by thirty-two local residents concerning illegal actions committed by Russian servicemen during the recent zachistka (Lenta.ru, February 5). On February 4, the human rights group Memorial quoted from a report it said it had received from Starye Atagi residents about the zachistka, which began on January 28. The report–which is really more of a plea for assistance–refers to the “violation” of women and girls, the “defilement” of the local mosque and the “desecration” of the local cemetery. It concludes: “Help us! We–women, children and old men–are waiting for you! We will not sign this–you know why. We are in hell.” Memorial said it was unable to confirm the report’s claims because Starye Atagi remained blockaded by Russian security forces (Memo.ru, February 4).
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