Russians admit rout in Chechnya killed 84

Rebels overwhelmed crack troops, who called in friendly fire

March 11, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- After days of government denials, top Russian officials admitted yesterday that 84 paratroopers died in a six-hour battle in Chechnya last week -- some of them apparently from "friendly fire" -- in the worst reported incident of Russian casualties since the war began.

Russian newspapers and television reported that some of the paratroopers were killed when their commanders saw that they were hopelessly outnumbered and ordered an artillery attack on their own position.

Only six Russian soldiers survived the battle with rebels in the separatist republic.

Russian officials had insisted repeatedly that the deaths of the highly trained troops had occurred in separate battles over a four-day period, until Defense Minister Igor D. Sergeyev acknowledged yesterday that they had all died the night of Feb. 29.

The deaths came to light because many of the 90 men were from Pskov, a city of 200,000 where word of the disaster quickly spread.

The Russian losses came as the military was on the verge of claiming victory in Chechnya.

Heavy fighting continues, however, in the mountainous southern region of Chechnya, and the rebels have boldly mounted guerrilla attacks in Russian-held territory, including retaking the village of Komsomolskoye and holding it now for five days against heavy Russian bombardments.

Sergeyev made no comment on the report of "friendly fire" but said the soldiers had been trying to keep 600 rebels from breaking through a pass into the neighboring republic of Dagestan.

"A great number of bandits were eliminated, but unfortunately our guys were killed too," he said.

The defense minister's admission of the one-day losses adds to questions about the official toll of 1,836 dead and 4,984 wounded since fighting in the region began in August.

Critics, including the respected Soldiers' Mothers Committee, have said the number of bodies sent home in coffins from Chechnya is at least two to three times greater than the government count.

The deaths of the paratroopers came two days before an elite unit of paramilitary police commandos was ambushed by rebels March 2 on a road near the capital, Grozny. At least 20 commandos were killed.

`Cynical act of concealment'

Military analyst Alexander I. Zhilin, a retired colonel, said he suspects the government tried to conceal the paratroopers' one-day death toll because it didn't want to admit that many of the soldiers were killed by shells fired by their own side.

"Such a cynical act of concealment of real casualties is a crime and should be severely punished," he said.

"The big question is whether they have been concealing the truth of the tragedy not only from the public at large but from the president, too."

The paratroopers were guarding the mountain pass near the southern town of Ulus-Kert the night of Feb. 29 when a force of Chechen rebels radioed the Russians and asked for safe passage, the newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta reported.

Vastly superior numbers

The newspaper, apparently basing its report on the account of a survivor, said Russian Col. Mark Yevtukhin refused the request and the rebels attacked.

The rebel force, numbering as many 1,800, according to some Russian officials, overwhelmed the federal forces and burst into their trenches, where the two sides fought hand-to-hand.

Yevtukhin, seeing that the battle was lost, ordered his battery officer, Capt. Viktor Romanov, to call in artillery fire on their own position. Romanov, who had lost both legs and was on the verge of losing consciousness, obeyed and shells began hitting the area. Both officers died.

Before the artillery began firing, according to the newspaper's account, about 30 of the paratroopers were still alive. It is unclear how many of them were killed by their own side.

"There was simply no other choice," a commander of the airborne troops in Pskov told the newspaper Segodnya. "A small company that clashed with a huge group of fighters was doomed anyway. So they just drew fire."

After the missile attack stopped, the surviving rebels moved among the Russian troops and killed those who appeared to be alive, Obshchaya Gazeta said. The six survivors escaped by playing dead.

Casualty figures diluted

In the days after the battle, the government announced that 31 paratroopers had been killed one day, 26 the next, 16 the day after that and 11 on the fourth day.

Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's chief spokesman for the war, bristled Wednesday when asked by reporters for more information about the report that 31 paratroopers were killed in one day.

"I must tell you that these are the total losses suffered by this company and paratroopers in general during the past several days," Yastrzhembsky said. Other government officials gave the same information.

Lt. Gen. Gennady Troshev, deputy commander of federal forces in Chechnya, acknowledged the higher death toll yesterday and said the army had given out incorrect information because it could not confirm the death toll for six days after the battle.

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