Despite reports that "the last Russian soldier has left Chechnya," a Russian newspaper claimed yesterday that as many as 1,058 Russian POWs — a number roughly equal to an entire regiment — remain in the Caucasus republic. (Novaya ezhednevnaya gazeta, January 6) The report provoked an immediate denial from Grozny, where presidential candidate Movladi Udugov called it a lie and a provocation. (NTV, January 6)
The Russian authorities are having a hard time producing an exact estimate of the number of Russian POWs. Interior minister Anatoly Kulikov is the only Russian official to provide any figures for the number of prisoners and those missing in action from his department: 19 hostages and 37 missing in action. (ORT, January 6) But these figures must be taken with a grain of salt. Cases are known in which a soldier’s parents were given what they were told were the remains of their son, only to find out later that in fact he had been captured by the Chechens. There have also been cases where soldiers declared prisoners of war had actually deserted to the Chechens to escape harassment by fellow-soldiers. (Izvestiya, November 24, 1995) "No one knows the exact number of Russian POWs in Chechnya. I think the real number is, at a maximum, only half as big as the figure quoted in Novaya ezhednevnaya gazeta," Vladimir Zorin, the chairman of the State Duma’s International Relations Committee, told the Monitor.
Release of the Russian POWs will be possible only after Chechens arrested during the war are released from Russian jails. According to the Chechen side, there are about 1,000 such prisoners. (NTV, January 6) Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin has called for a full and unconditional amnesty in the near future for all participants in the conflict, and Zorin is one of the authors of a resolution proposing just that. But the Duma, which is the only body with the power to grant an amnesty, has deferred debate on it until after Chechnya’s January 27 election. Rybkin has also called for establishment of a committee to search for POWs and MIAs, and for Kulikov to be put in charge of it. (ORT, January 6)
According to the chairwoman of the Russian Soldier’s Mothers’ committee, Maria Kirbasova, many of the prisoners held in Chechnya are already dead, and it will be impossible to find their remains. According to Chechen custom, a prisoner of war is considered the property of his captors. Many prisoners are reported to have been "bought" by Chechen families whose relatives are in Russian prisons. Kirbasova says these families will not release their Russian soldiers until their relatives are returned. (NTV, January 6)
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