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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.