Russia shies away from threat to destroy Grozny

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA WAS backing away yesterday from its threat to annihilate Grozny, the Chechen capital, starting early today, and claimed it had ceased air attacks on the city until tomorrow.

Russian leaders seem embarrassed that their ultimatum to civilians in Grozny - leave or die - has backfired by focusing international attention on the fate of the people remaining in the besieged city. Last night, the European Union leaders meeting in Helsinki were cautiously optimistic that their toughened statement on Chechnya, threatening to reduce financial assistance to Russia or divert funds towards humanitarian aid, was yielding results. Chris Patten, European commissioner for foreign affairs, said the EU had "hit all the buttons on its dashboard" and its political message might have begun to have some effect.

Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister for Emergency Services, is to discuss an evacuation plan with Chechen leaders. Refugees say they do not trust Russian promises of secure corridors out of the battle zone because in the past they have been attacked on the roads, despite guarantees of safety. In one village, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch said the elders approached Russian military commanders to ask why they were being bombed despite a local ceasefire agreement. The officers told them: "Your agreement was with the Russian army, not the Russian air force."

Russian forces have now taken all the main towns in the plains of Chechnya, with the exception of Grozny, though local people say there are still many guerrillas in the area. The Russian occupation has been accompanied by an orgy of looting, the worst offenders being "contract" soldiers who are not part of the regular army. Madina Chilaeva, from the village of Sernovodsk, close to the border with Ingushetia, said: "Soldiers stole what they could from the mosque and cut up with knives the carpets they did not take away. They wrecked the local agricultural school, which we had just finished rebuilding after the last war."

In Alkan-Yurt, another village, local people said soldiers looted houses then set them on fire. When house-owners protested, they were shot. Adam Deniyev, a local resident, said that when an elderly but well-off villager called Hanpasha Dudayev asked soldiers to stop looting his house, "they shot him and threw his body into the house, which was on fire".

Summary executions and widespread looting by Russian soldiers will fuel the guerrilla war, which is likely to be the next stage in the conflict in Chechnya. Atrocities are also likely to unite the Chechens, deeply divided at the start of the war, against the invader.