Moscow denies casualties despite photo evidence

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The Independent Online

The bodies of four federal soldiers lie in shrouds in a frozen field in Chechnya - although officially no soldiers were killed on the day they died. Now two pictures, taken secretly by a Russian photographer and published in a newspaper yesterday, have provided evidence of their deaths and have renewed doubts about the true number of casualties.

The bodies of four federal soldiers lie in shrouds in a frozen field in Chechnya - although officially no soldiers were killed on the day they died. Now two pictures, taken secretly by a Russian photographer and published in a newspaper yesterday, have provided evidence of their deaths and have renewed doubts about the true number of casualties.

From the start of this latest conflict in Chechnya, the Russian armed forces have gone out of their way to sanitise the war, reporting limited casualties and ensuring photographs of its dead and wounded never appeared on television or in the press. Generally, they have succeeded. Only by chance was a photographer - who does not want to be named - able to take a picture of the bodies of four Interior Ministry troops from the city of Orenburg, which was published yesterday in the Russian weekly Novaya Gazeta.

The soldiers were killed fighting Chechen guerrillas on 27 December, a day when officials say that no troops were killed. The bodies, which were abandoned, were handed over 11 days later in exchange for some dead rebels.

The Defence Ministry in Moscow said yesterday that 426 soldiers were killed and 1,195 wounded between 10 October and 5 January. This excludes casualties from the heavy fighting during a Chechen counterattack 10 days ago on towns east of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

But since Moscow launched the second Chechen war, many soldiers, their relatives and human rights groups have come to believe that the real losses are much higher than those announced. Valentina Melnikova, of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, said that going by reports from the Russian regions, the real figure is at least 3,000 dead and 6,000 wounded.

The government has gone out of its way to make it difficult for the public to discover the number of Russian victims. The army, Interior Ministry, security services and different branches of the government report their losses separately.

Both the Interior Ministry and the FSB security service told The Independent yesterday that they had no data that they could reveal. Even senior medical staff in the Defence Ministry cannot obtain true figures, says the militarynews agency AVN, which suspects that losses are three or four times the number reported.

The true figure for federal losses is a political football because Moscow has always presented this waras very different from the one in 1994-96, when Chechen guerrillas repeatedly decimated untrained infantry and unsupported armoured columns.

Dmitri Shkapov of Memorial, a human-rights group, saidthat going on past experience, the casualties were between 20 and 30 per cent higher than officially announced.

This may be because the number of missing is not included. At the end of the last war, the army said that 4,000 of its soldiers had died in the fighting, but did not include some 1,900 missing, almost all of whom were dead.

Military casualties probably were low up untilearly December, when troops foughthard in villages south of Grozny to close a "ring of steel" around the capital. Then there were reports of heavy losses from Russian officers, although these were swiftly denied by Moscow.

Whatever the true figures, Russian casualties are likely to increase. The acting president, Vladimir Putin, said at the weekend that the army wouldnow move to take Grozny and then drive into the mountains of southern Chechnya.

The Chechen rebels, for their part, say that they will shift from positional to guerrilla warfare, at which they are famously skilful.

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