Russians to send Chechen males over 10 to 'gulag'

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The Independent Online

Russia started screening all Chechens males between the ages of 10 and 60 yesterday, raising fears of mass deportations to harsh filtration camps - reminiscent of Soviet-era gulags.

Russia started screening all Chechens males between the ages of 10 and 60 yesterday, raising fears of mass deportations to harsh filtration camps - reminiscent of Soviet-era gulags.

The filtration system became notorious during the last war in the republic when thousands of Chechens were tortured and many disappeared.

Under new regulations, no Chechen male born after 1940 or before 1990 is being allowed in or out of the republic. Ramzan Bisultanov, 47, who was trying to yesterday to return to the republic from its neighbour Ingushetia to bury his sister, told reporters that he had been refused permission to cross. Mr Bisultanov, who holds a Russian passport, said: "No documents were of use today."

By classifying all Chechen males who are not children or pensioners as potential guerrillas, Moscow appears to be abandoning its claim that its invasion in September was in pursuit of small groups of "terrorists".

Russian troops were fighting to regain control of key towns east of Grozny, the Chechen capital, yesterday in the aftermath of a guerrilla counter-offensive, which has shaken Moscow's confidence that it can win a quick victory.

Rebel fighters were still holding positions in the town of Argun near the railway station and grain depot, according to Russian news agencies. In response to the counter-attacks, the Russian forces were under orders from General Victor Kazantsev, the commander in the north Caucasus, to treat males between 10 and 60 as rebel suspects. Federal officers say they were taken off-guard in the latest attacks because many civilians took up arms in Argun, Shali and Gudermes.

The ease with which guerrillas recaptured towns has led to increased criticism of the war in the Russian media. The daily Komsomolskaya Pravda said yesterday that local federal commanders had advance warning of the offensive, "but could do nothing because all forces had been sent to Grozny". The inability to react quickly might also show that the Russians are having difficulty shifting from their strategy of relying on artillery and air bombardment to clear their way.

Chechen sources said yesterday that they had withdrawn from Vedeno, a village in the east. But, in the past, the rebels have allowed federal troops to take over and then counter-attacked when the presence of their own men made it difficult for the Russians to use their heavy guns.

The upsurge in fighting has already led to a renewed flow of refugees from Chechnya. The news agency Itar-Tass said yesterday that 2,057 had left during the day. Officials continue to insist that few Chechens have been killed or injured by shelling or air strikes. Sergei Ivanov, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, said that 700 had been killed by guerrillas because they refused to help them.

Russia's Defence Minister, Igor Sergeyev, denied that federal troops had sold weapons to the rebels. Security officials in the former Soviet republic of Georgia said they had caught troops trying to sell arms, and Georgian television broadcast a videotape showing two soldiers loading ammunition and weapons on to a truck at the Russian base of Vaziani, a few miles from the Chechen border. Russia's security service called the video "a fabrication", and Mr Sergeyev said that "according to the data that I have at hand, no such thing happened".

There is no sign that recent setbacks are leading the Kremlin to consider negotiating. Mr Sergeyev said yesterday: "There will be no suspension of military actions against the militant rebels." He added that there was nobody to talk to on the Chechen side, asking: "Who are we to negotiate with?"

* The attempt by Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, for the presidency gained official status yesterday when almost 200 business leaders and powerful regional governors meeting in a Moscow hotel formally invited him to stand.

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