Troops suspected in Chechen abductions

Report links Russians to up to 300 kidnappings

prime minister criticized

April 18, 2003|By David Holley | David Holley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOSCOW - A top official in Chechnya's Moscow-backed government said yesterday that Russian soldiers there may be responsible for as many as 300 kidnappings of civilians last year - but that he saw nothing unusual in that.

"Yes, there are crimes, there are kidnappings, and some of them involve servicemen," Chechen Prime Minister Anatoly Popov said at a Moscow news conference, citing statistics from a report by Chechen prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko. "This is not a classified report, but the results of the prosecutors' work in 2002. In fact, it indicated about 300 abductions of residents in which soldiers might have been involved. I see nothing extraordinary about that."

There were more than 200 other kidnappings in which soldiers are not suspected, he said.

Vyacheslav Izmailov, a military correspondent with Novaya Gazeta and one of Russia's top experts on Chechnya, decried Popov's statement linking abductions to federal forces.

It is "commendable" that Popov made the figures public, "but the way he commented on it is totally inexplicable," Izmailov said. "The practice of kidnapping people by federal servicemen is inadmissible, for it is an ignominious crime. More so when people get abducted by the hundreds. Maybe the figure 300 does not look shocking to the prime minister of Chechnya, but it certainly looks shocking to the rest of the civilized world."

People have been disappearing mostly at the hands of death squads, Izmailov said.

"The job of these squads was to secretly take out rebels and those who were known to have been helping them," he said. "They kidnapped to kill, not to get money, acting on tips and secret intelligence provided by informers. If there were rebels whom it would be hard to put on trial for lack of evidence, but who were known to have committed crimes, these people would be the most likely victims of such squads.

"But in any case, whatever the reason, even the lowest estimate of 300 makes one's hair stand on end. It is a horrible figure, and it is a horrible phenomenon."

Human Rights Watch reported last week that according to unpublished Russian government statistics, 1,132 civilians were killed in Chechnya last year, which it said was about five to eight times the murder rate in Russia as a whole.

Chechens exercised some autonomy after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-1996 war. Russian forces returned in 1999 and have battled guerrillas since.

Kravchenko, who prepared the report, said "the information about the 300 abductions has been made public because we have decided to do so."

"The prosecutor's office has held a meeting where these issues were discussed in great detail. It was our duty," he said. "And it has nothing to do with the blathering on about horrible crimes allegedly committed by Russian armed forces in Chechnya that has been going on in Moscow. ... We just did our own job, strictly according to the law."

Kravchenko added that "it would be incorrect to assume that all 300 people have been abducted by Russian servicemen."

"As matters stand today, criminal proceedings have been initiated in connection with the 300 abductions," he said. "Federal servicemen are indeed suspected to have been involved in some of these crimes. But all this remains to be proved. It is quite possible that Chechen rebels, clad in Russian military uniform, may have committed those crimes in order to discredit the Russian armed forces. There have been numerous cases like this before."

Kravchenko stressed that the investigation "is just routine work for us - and we do not differentiate between military or civilian criminals. ... We do not try to make a sensation of our work, and it is not clear why some routine information has stirred such a great commotion among certain circles in Russia."

Meanwhile, separatist violence continued in Chechnya. Two police officers were killed and three wounded Wednesday in Grozny, the capital, when their car was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, Russian news agencies reported yesterday. Also, the head of police in a city district was seriously wounded in a bomb attack.

David Holley is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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