Russians `thinning out' Chechen men, group says

Thousands of refugees being forced to return from Ingushetia camps

July 25, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A prominent human rights group says Russian authorities are pressuring tens of thousands of Chechen refugees living in camps to return to their homes, where they risk being kidnapped and murdered by Russian troops.

"The situation in Chechnya is really desperate," said Aaron Rhodes, executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. "The population of Chechnya is terrorized by the Russian forces, and these people in the camps are terrified of returning there."

The Vienna-based group led a fact-finding mission last week to Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia, where about 45,000 refugees live in tents, converted farm buildings and abandoned factories. These makeshift villages sprang up after the latest phase of Russia's war against Islamic separatists began almost three years ago.

President Vladimir V. Putin says the major fighting in Chechnya is over, with only mopping-up operations remaining. Russian officials are promising refugees housing and financial help back in Chechnya, and deny that anyone will be forced to return.

But Rhodes said the residents of Ingushetia's crowded, muddy tent camps have been given little choice, with authorities threatening to close the camps and shut off supplies of gas - vital for heating and cooking - before the start of winter.

Refugees who decide to return to Chechnya risk dying there at the hands of Russian troops, Rhodes said, and the remains of 50 to 80 people are discovered in the breakaway republic every month.

"In some months the figure is actually much higher," and may be increasing, he said.

Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov called Rhodes' estimate "a sick man's fantasy." He told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency that 80 percent of the killings of civilians in the country were committed by criminals and denied that anyone was being forced to return.

But the Helsinki Federation and other human rights groups say that almost all of the dead are young Chechen men who disappear during so-called zachisti, or "cleansing operations," in which Russian troops surround a village and conduct house-to-house searches for rebels and weapons.

Many of the bodies are burned, mutilated or decapitated in an apparent effort to prevent identification. Few of the disappearances are investigated. Fewer result in arrests. Human rights groups say there is little doubt that Russian soldiers are responsible for the killings.

"The evidence is overpowering that these people are being murdered by Russian forces," Rhodes said.

The scale of the slaughter is staggering, he said. Chechnya has a population of about 250,000, roughly that of Howard County. Rhodes told reporters this week that it is as if thousands of Russian soldiers were engaged in "thinning out" Chechen males, but he stopped short of calling it genocide.

"We're not making explicit allegations about whether or not this is a policy of the government or the military, or whether it reflects a lack of control of the actions of soldiers," Rhodes said yesterday. "But the effect of this is certainly to diminish the population."

Some rights groups say the situation in Chechnya was worsened by the United States. Washington tempered its criticism of Russia's conduct of the war after Sept. 11, when the Kremlin broke with Soviet-era traditions and supported the U.S.-led global campaign against terrorism.

Rhodes said Russia has never responded to international pressure to reduce abuses in Chechnya, which it considers an internal matter. He said he doubts that the reduction in criticism has had much effect on the Kremlin's conduct of the war, which has been marked by allegations of rights abuses on both sides.

While human rights groups have focused their criticism on abuses by Russian troops, Chechen rebels have conducted a campaign of terror and assassination against officials loyal to Moscow and Russian troops in Chechnya.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that rebel forces produced a video of Chechens slitting the throats of six young Russian recruits who surrendered in September 1999. The video was reportedly used as a recruiting tool.

More than 5,000 Russian troops have died in the fighting. No one is certain how many Chechen civilians have been killed, but estimates range in the tens of thousands.

"What's happening in Chechnya is a kind of state terrorism, because it's directed against civilians," Rhodes said.

He said such brutal policies accomplish little except to generate frustration and despair - creating fertile soil for terrorism.

While the history of the conflict dates to the 18th century, the current war broke out in Chechnya in 1994 - as the Soviet Union dissolved.

Fighting halted in 1996 with a political settlement. But the bloodshed resumed in September 1999, after Chechen rebels sought to extend their Islamic revolution to neighboring Dagestan. Russian authorities also blamed Chechen separatists for mysterious apartment house bombings that killed about 300 people in Moscow and other Russian cities.

Rhodes said he was struck during last week's visit by the hostile attitude of Russian authorities toward noncombatant Chechens.

"A lot of people in those camps mentioned that no high Russian official has ever visited those camps, has ever expressed any sympathy or solidarity with these people - and they are after all Russian citizens," Rhodes said. "They are victims of racism. They are not considered to be fully human by many Russians."

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