Army deserter tells of faking Chechen attack on Russian outpost

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The Independent Online

A soldier in the Russian army in Chechnya deserted after he was ordered by his commanding officer to fake a Chechen attack on his outpost and tortured when he refused to lie.

Mehak Melkonian escaped from his torturers when two men guarding him fell asleep and, using money provided by friends in his military unit who feared he would be killed to silence him, fled from Chechnya across the border into the republic of Ingushetia.

The evidence of Mr Melkonian, a 19-year-old conscript from Krasnodar in southern Russia, is the first detailed account from a Russian soldier confirming repeated claims by Chechens that the Russian army plants mines and explosive devices in its own positions. This enables Russian officers to claim combat pay and gain promotion on the basis that they are fighting guerrillas.

Mr Melkonian, his face still bruised from repeated beatings, was interviewed when hiding in Nazran, the capital of Ingush-etia. As proof of torture he unbuttoned the front of his blue shirt to show a deep black burn on his stomach where a cigar-ette had been pressed against his skin. He then took off a sock and held out a foot pitted with small but deep knife wounds. Two days after the interview the Russian army recaptured him.

The soldier, whose family is of Armenian origin, was drafted last year into a regiment of Interior Ministry troops that belongs to the Don 100 division. He arrived in Chechnya in January and, with some 30 other soldiers, was sent to garrison an outpost in the village of Shalazhy, which stands on the edge of a plain overlooked by the rugged mountains of southern Chechnya.

There was no fighting in Shalazhy. Villagers had a de facto agreement with the Russian authorities to stay out of the war. Mr Melkonian said: "The idea was that we don't touch them and they don't touch us." The Russian soldiers got on well with the Chechen villagers, though their commander told them not to speak to the residents.

Problems for the little unit began when a new commander was appointed. He was a senior lieutenant called Vadim Remizov, who drank heavily but was also frustrated that there was no military action.

Last month, Mr Melkonian said, Lt Remizov told his men: "Today we have to have an attack." He ordered them to prepare an explosive charge with a fuse and stick it between the bricks of the block-house. After the explosion the military units in Shalazhy poured fire into the wooded hills around the village. Mr Melkonian was standing some 12 feet away from the block-house when it blew up and suffered mild concussion. Fragments of brick hit him in the lower legs.

Mr Melkonian said the private soldiers "were uncomfortable about what happened because we thought our Chechen friends in the village would be harshly punished because of the explosion. We decided to tell the colonel of our regiment that it was a fake."

Mr Melkonian did not quite dare call Lt Remizov a liar. When questioned by Colonel Dralshikov, the regimental commander, he only hinted that the bomb explosion was not all it seemed.

This was enough, however, to rouse Col Dralshikov's suspicions that there had been no Chechen attack. He said: "It is clear you carried out this attack yourselves."

Only with great difficulty was Lt Remizov able to persuade him that the Chechens really had thrown a grenade at the outpost. After the colonel left, the lieutenant said to Mr Melkonian: "You almost got me into real trouble. I will send you to Hell."

Hostility between the two men increased rapidly. Mr Melkonian had a skin condition that made it painful for him to shave. He had been given permission not to. Now Lt Remizov ordered him to shave and, when he refused, punched him in the face five times.

He was then driven to a nearby village where he was attacked by the deputy commander of his battalion and eight so-called "contract" soldiers, much feared by Chechens and Russian conscripts for their brutality.

Mr Melkonian was stripped, systematically beaten and tortured. At one point a medical orderly was asked to check if he was still alive. The victim said: "I noticed how cheerful they were as they beat me."

As night fell Mr Melkonian was left on a bench with two men to guard him, but he managed to crawl away as they slept. He heard troops searching for him. Still naked, he met four Chechen villagers who gave him food, clothes and told him where it was safe to sleep.

He walked back to Shalazhy because his fellow conscripts were the only people he knew in Chechnya. To his horror he met Lt Remizov, who warned him to keep his mouth shut. But when he talked to his Russian soldier friends they told him to run away to avoid being killed. The soldiers gave him some money and, wearing civilian clothes, he was able to pay a bus driver 50 roubles to get him across the border. He checked into hospital and, after treatment, was put in touch with a Russian human rights organisation.

When he spoke to The Independent Mr Melkonian was worried at how to break the news of what had happened to his sick mother in Krasnodar, but two nights later he was picked up by the Russian army.

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