Chechens' terror at Russian bombers

War in the Caucasus: Villagers must hand over rebels or face shelling as vote-seeking Yeltsin seeks `peace'

Here's how they tell the story in Katyr-Yurt, a farming village on the plains of Chechnya. Not long ago a Russian general from the 58th Army, an angry-looking character, arrived in the fields on the outskirts and demanded to see the elders.

He had an ultimatum: the village had a day to hand over 100 weapons and 10 prisoners of war or he would bombard the place, which was surrounded by his tanks. It was as simple and as brutal as that.

"How would you feel in my place?" asked Ali Bashayev, the mayor, as he sat with a group of worried residents in a friend's home, "We can't sleep either night or day, because every minute we expect them to open fire." As he spoke, the windows rattled with the tremors of a nearby bombing as the Russians embarked on yet another attempt to force a Chechen community to bend to their will.

Terrified that they would share the fate of others shelled by the Russians, the village sent a group of 100 locals, mostly women, to reason with the general. They wept as they spent more than an hour imploring him not to act. It was only after an official from the Moscow-backed regional government intervened with General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, Russia's military commander in the republic, that Katyr-Yurt secured a reprieve, albeit perhaps temporary.

This, then, is how Russia is conducting its business in Chechnya. Russia has done its best to conceal its activities from the world by trying to bar journalists and international aid agencies from access to the bombardment zones.

But it is clear that Moscow is in breach of its commitments to human rights, as a new member of the Council of Europe. In the last few days, Russia has been bombarding the village of Samashki, where its troops conducted a massacre last year, and where thousands of residents are now said to be in hiding. Other settlements - Orekhovo and Stary Achkhoi, for example - have also been under fire.

So what is Russia up to? Crucial is the presidential election, now only three months away. President Yeltsin has committed himself to ending the war before polling day. He fears he may lose if he fails to do so, although he is now reducing some of the large lead enjoyed in the polls by the Communist frontrunner, Gennady Zyuganov.

The president claims to have worked out a peace plan with his Security Council, but is keeping it under wraps until this month's end. Yet, in the war-weary republic itself, his army and the Chechen government are already engaged in securing a settlement by using a combination of bombs and threats.

Many of Chechnya's 420 villages are being ordered to sign three-way peace agreements with the Russian military and the pro-Russian Chechen authorities. The documents require elders to hand over all weapons in the village and to agree to expel any separatist fighters in their midst.

Those who co-operate receive a promise from the Russians that they will not attack, unless the agreement is breached; those who do not get shelled. As one diplomat put it: "It is like saying: `If you sign this agreement, we won't kill you.' "

The Chechens are well aware of the dire consequences of incurring Russia's wrath. A reminder came when the 58th Army tore into Sernovodsk in western Chechnya last week, looting and rampaging through the village, which had already been bombed heavily, reducing a mosque to rubble. Houses were stripped bare, shot up, and burnt. Media and aid workers were barred.

The Russians said that the attack was to flush out rebels. But the mayor, Boris Kiev, claims there were none - not least because he already had an agreement with the Russians not to allow any fighters into town. "I now wish I had invited the fighters in," he said, after escaping his village by swimming across a river. "I was unable to help my brothers and sisters because I believed the Russian propaganda."

His remarks illustrate a phenomenon that is occurring across the war zone. The point of forcing villages to sign agreements appears to be to isolate the rebels, and to allow the Kremlin to tell Russian voters that peace has been restored in Chechnya. But the effect is the opposite: anti- Russian opinion is growing stronger, including among opponents of the rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. With this comes greater support for outright independence - a status that the Kremlin is unwilling to grant Chechnya .

Chechens on both sides complain about the Russian presence, accusing the military of failing to distinguish between rebels and ordinary citizens.

The deputy prime minister of the Chechen government claims that Moscow's troops have been looting, disarming police and detaining ordinary people.

For months, stories have circulated of the horrors of Russian filtration camps. So, too, have allegations that the Russians are refusing to allow any men between the age of 14 and 55 to escape from villages which they bombard.

All this fuels the hatred of Russia. "Even the people who were pro-Russian simply because they hated Dudayev so much are reduced to total despair now by the situation," said Roman Wasilewski, of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. "They have seen that the Russians coming in makes things unbelievably worse, worse even than their worst nightmares."

Unsurprisingly, this view has taken hold along the muddy lanes of Katyr- Yurt. The elders were last week puzzling over how they could ever find the 100 guns that the Russian general demanded. Only last year, they handed in more than 50 as part of a peace accord. Now they say they are raising funds to buy some more to hand in weapons that they expect to acquire, via a middle-man, from the Russian army, whose hungry and ill- paid soldiers sell arms for food.

And while Mr Yeltsin's strategy may help convince Russians outside the Caucasus that he is doing the right thing, the village mayor, Mr Bashayev, is not impressed. Some five decades after his people were deported en masse by Stalin, he says he would now like to see a Communist in the Kremlin.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
20. Larry Page: Net worth: $23 billion; Country: U.S; Source of wealth: Google
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
A collection of 30 Banksy prints at Bonhams auction house in London
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness