Mystery clouds deaths of Red Cross workers Investigation in Chechnya has made no progress in identifying culprits

February 16, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

NOVIYE ATAGI, Russia -- Who killed six Westerners working for the Red Cross in Chechnya last December?

The immediate answer is clear: 15 masked men, with the silenced guns of professional killers, broke into a white-walled hospital compound in the dead of night and shot their victims as they slept. What remains a mystery is who the gunmen were, who commissioned the crime and why.

The brutal multiple murders forced the International Committee of the Red Cross to beat a hasty retreat from the separatist region in southern Russia.

The killings also deprived Chechens of desperately needed humanitarian aid, added weight to Russia's contention that their homeland is a den of murderous thieves and nearly scared off foreign observers who monitored the January elections that confirmed a transition to peace.

But, even after peacetime elections, the Chechen police are no closer to finding the killers of Nancy Malloy, Fernanda Calado, Cheryl Thayer, Hans Elkerbout, Ingerborg Foss and Gunnhild Myklebust. Local officials believe that law enforcers in the capital, Grozny, are not even trying.

"If the police had really got to work on this seriously, it could have been sorted out long ago," said Nashmudin Takhigov, mayor of Noviye Atagi. "They should be telling the people of this village, on whom the whole burden of guilt falls, that they've traced a named person to a particular address in a particular town. But we've seen nothing like that so far, and I don't think we're likely to."

The hospital limps on. The foreigners have gone, the power is running low and there is not much medicine left, but a local surgeon still comes in three times a week to tend to the three remaining patients, and a handful of nurses go on working without wages.

The sheer number of theories flying about reflects a deeply divided society, ruined after nearly two years of a war with Russia that has left survivors with angry prejudices. The two most widely held theories are stark expressions of political and ethnic hatreds.

People in the rest of Russia have no difficulty believing that fly-by-night Chechen gun nuts crept in off the street to murder the wealthy foreigners. Many Chechen men still carry their wartime weapons, there is virtually no employment and violent crime has skyrocketed since the war ended.

In support of this theory, survivors of the massacre say the killers spoke Chechen to each other and spared a Chechen translator and Chechen guards as they hunted down expatriates on their murder spree Dec. 17.

People all over Chechnya find it equally easy to believe that Russian secret service agents killed the medical staff in hopes of discrediting the Chechens, disrupting the elections and allowing Moscow to begin a new, more successful war to crush Chechnya's dream of independence.

They say the fact that the killers carried professionals' guns, with silencers, and left behind money and jewelry proves they were not crazy ex-fighters hunting instant wealth. Instead, they say, the gunmen were carrying out a contract, and the obvious fact that chasing away the Red Cross was not in Chechnya's interests proves the contract was not taken out by a Chechen.

This is the theory Chechnya's security service is working on, said press officer Rizlan Zukhairayev. He says Chechnya has demanded the extradition from Russia of a Chechen who works for Russia's security services and who allegedly organized the killing.

The stories Noviye Atagi residents tell are less black and white. They reveal a complex of local dramas featuring warlords, profiteers, postwar poverty, malice and suspicion, and a cast of suspects whom neither Moscow nor Grozny has any immediate political reason to shine a spotlight on.

Were the killings part of a quarrel between the foreigners and Khattab, an Arab warlord fighting alongside the Chechens, who threatened to rocket their compound unless they replaced red crosses with Muslim crescents?

Heidrun Zimmermann, a German nurse who survived the attack, believes fundamentalists such as Khattab were to blame. "Their act of terrorism can be interpreted as just pure hatred for the Red Cross, which is treated by Chechen Muslims as a Christian symbol," she told Geneva's Le Matin newspaper.

"No, no, all that calmed down after the original threat in late August," Mayor Takhigov said. "The Red Cross staff didn't paint in crescents, but they whitewashed the whole perimeter fence around their compound and removed all the red crosses."

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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