Drunken Russians murder civilians

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he still hands of the dashboard clock record the moment Russian tank tracks brushed the right hand side of a red Lada already riddled with bullet-holes.

They give the time as 6.05.

They also point to a night of bloodstained horror: Russian troops ran amok, say survivors, on a desolate snow-covered dirt road designated as a safe exit route for refugees fleeing the war in Chechnya.

"There were people screaming and weeping all around. I never thought I would get home alive. I was sure it was all over," said Tamara Beshtoev, a 40-year-old mother of three caught in a hail of Russian gunfire last Saturday evening. "I was screaming `help, help. You're killing us.' They just kept shooting - they were laughing."

A rescue convoy waving a white flag tried to reach the scene several hours later but was driven back by shooting, according to local officials in the neighbouring region of Ingushetia, just a few miles down the road, who say the gunfire continued until about 3am.

Moscow, in its only official comments on the incident, claims its own forces were attacked and fired in self-defence. Survivors deny carrying arms and said they were merely escaping the conflict region for the deadline of midnight Saturday given by BorisYeltsin for Chechnya to surrender its arms or risk an all-out Russian attack.

The three cars were caught in what five survivors describe as an unprovoked ambush that sent the wounded clambering into a snowy ditch to be hunted down by Russian troops. All recall a Russian column lurking by the road without lights and soldiers cursing and howling as they attacked with automatic weapons and machine-guns and light tank cannon.

Mrs Beshtoev says she tried to approach the soldiers to appeal for mercy. He pulled her to the ground by the ankle. "He said, `Shut up. Don't you see what will happen if you keep screaming?' ''

Terrified and the only one of four in the car uninjured she then fled across a frozen wheatfield: "I crawled across the field like a dog, so they would not shoot me. I felt like a block of ice... I stopped in the middle and cried, `Dear God help me - Allah save us.'"

Authorities from the nearby village of Nesterovskoe in Ingushetia visited the scene the following morning and found trails of blood leading from into the roadside ditch leading into the open field, including one that stopped by a bag of baby food. Mrs Beshtoev says she heard a baby crying for about ten minutes. But no child's body was found.

The officials put the death toll at nine but only two have been confirmed.

Mrs Beshtoev says she saw soldiers dump three bodies onto a tank. "They were drunk or out of their minds. Normal people can't act like this," said Aksakal Tangiev, driver of a white Lada also caught in the assault. A bullet grazed his shoulder but two refugees he picked up outside Assinovskaya are both thought to be killed.

Many details remain unclear but the bloodshed highlights the Russian tragic dilemma in trying to enforce President Yeltsin's vow to disband what the Kremlin calls "illegal armed formations" - the civilians, whether in night-time air attacks on the Chechen capital, Grozny, or in encounters with of Russian armour on country road, bear the brunt of the suffering.

Yesterday on the frozen track of from Assinovskaya to Nesterovskaya, flanked on one side by a flat field on the other by a small dam on the river Assa, large calibre rounds could still be found beneath thick snow. "This was the only road the refugees hadto get out of," said Boris Ezangiev, deputy head of the Nesterovskaya administration, "We call it the untouchable road." But he says Russian soldiers, after attacks on civilians, fired on a rescue mission of two ambulances, one a doctor's car, two police cars and several other vehicles. Also forced back by the shooting was a delegation of the Russian Parliament of Moscow.

"Why didn't they let anyone pass? So they could take the bodies away and hide them. He did not know how many there were. What else could it be?" said the anguished Mr Dzangiev .

Ingushetia, inhabited by ethnic Chechens shares Chechnya's hostility towards Moscow. The testimony of its officials about Saturday's bloodshed generally conforms with the eye witness account of survivors. All were interviewed separately.