Moscow sends team to retrieve dead from Grozny

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Amid fears of an epidemic spread by rats and dogs feeding on human flesh and public outrage at daily television pictures of dead Russian soldiers abandoned on the streets of Grozny, Moscow yesterday launched an emergency mission to try to recover scores of corpses from the Chechen capital.

Leading the special operation is Sergei Shoygu, Minister of Civil Defence, Emergency Situations and Natural Disasters. A ministry spokeswoman, Marina Riklina, said Mr Shoygu had left for the Caucasus early yesterday morning along with a 20-member rescue team and would set up a base for the recovery of corpses at a Russian-controlled airfield in the north of Grozny.

Preliminary official figures put the Russian death toll in the five-week war in Chechnya at around 500. But, according to today's edition of the mass-circulation newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, the real figure is closer to 2,000 - more than the average annual death toll during the Afghan War. The paper said it based the figure on official but still secret data obtained during a trip to Chechnya by Mark Feigny, a member of the Russian State Duma.

The death toll among Chechen civilians and fighters is probably even higher.

Most of the Russian casualties died during and after a botched new year's eve assault on the centre of Grozny; their bodies still lie among the wreckage of a city reduced to rubble and flames by an almost constant barrage of Russian artillery, rockets a n d bombs.

Moscow declared a two-day ceasefire last week, partly in the hope that a pause in the fighting would make it possible to recover dead soldiers. The truce, however, collapsed almost immediately.

Failure to remove so many corpses has raised the spectre of an epidemic of disease in a city now without water and electricity and where all basic services have been destroyed. "We know it will be bad and we are getting ready for it," said Yevgeny Bilyaev of the State Committee of Sanitation and Epidemic Control. He cited the danger of plague, typhoid and cholera, though winter weather may help slow the spread of some bacterial infections. Interfax news agency yesterday reported similar concern among Russian military officials. The flow of refugees, which now number several hundred thousand, has overwhelmed health facilities in neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan.

The belated concern of Russian authorities over their dead soldiers may also stem from political calculation.

Many ordinary Russians have been deeply shocked by television pictures showing young soldiers incinerated inside armoured vehicles or abandoned in the streets. Adding to public anger is the fact that many of the dead were ill-trained conscripts ordered into Grozny as part of what became a suicidal tank assault on the presidential palace on 31 December. Casualties among Chechen fighters and civilians are even higher, but small and highly mobile groups of rebels have managed to remove many of their dead.

"There are piles of bodies everywhere. It is impossible to describe," said Galina Sidova, deputy chairman of the Committee of Russian Soldiers' Mothers, who returned to Moscow yesterday from Grozny. "It is impossible to recognise most of them. Many are burnt beyond recognition. It is terrible, terrible."

The fate of Russia's dead conscripts has made a grisly mockery of a statement in November by the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, that Russian paratroopers could subdue Chechnya in a mere two hours.

The civil defence ministry spokeswoman said rescue teams would try to recover the bodies during lulls in the fighting. Health workers had been sent to Grozny to try to analyse water for disease but, she said, had had to abandon their work because of fighting.

Only in the north of Chechnya, a region traditionally loyal to Moscow and previously the stronghold of forces opposed to the Chechen President, Dzhokhar Dudayev, is a rudimentary health service for civilians still functioning.