Top Russian unit quits over the cold and chaos quits over cold and chaos

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The Independent Online
Moscow - An elite Russian Interior Ministry unit has reportedly mutinied in Chechnya, packing its bags and returning home rather than serve in what its members called inhuman and chaotic conditions, writes Tony Barber.

The mutiny provided fresh evidence of the scale of dissent within Russia's armed services over the campaign to crush the secession attempt.

Astonishingly, Russian commanders appear to have taken no action either to prevent the unit's return or to discipline it for mutiny. In similar fashion, no army officers who have criticised the crackdown in Chechnya are known to have been punished.

The 100-strong unit came from the Yekaterinburg region of the Urals, President Boris Yeltsin's home area. But their loyalty to the President evaporated soon after they arrived in Chechnya last month and discovered they were in hostile territory in mid-winter with no maps, no hot food and little heat.

"They were simply left to their fate, and so they decided not to put up with this barbarous treatment. It was lawlessness," said a police-union spokesman in Yekaterinburg.

The Moscow Izvestia newspaper, critical of Mr Yeltsin's Chechnya crackdown, described the incident as the first case of insubordination in the Interior Ministry forces since the war started in earnest on 11 December. But the paper added that discontent was spreading from rank-and-file army soldiers to commanding officers.

Several prominent Russian generals, including a Deputy Defence Minister, Boris Gromov, have spoken out against the war. Some officers have criticised attacks on Chechen civilians; others have condemned the crackdown as a shambles in conception and execution.

The mutinous unit, made up of highly trained riot policemen, was transported on 2 December from Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow, to Beslan in North Ossetia, a republic that borders Chechnya. Unit members were told only that they were going on unspecified "Interior Ministry duties".

By New Year's Eve, armed only with Kalashnikov rifles, truncheons and tear gas, the unit was under orders to repulse an assault by 14 Chechen tanks. "How can we do our job properly with light weapons and tear gas when we are up against tanks and artillery?" Izvestia quoted one officer as saying.

Unit members described how civilians had greeted their advance into Chechnya with cries of "fascists" and threats to kill them. Women and children had blocked roads along which Russian forces were trying to pass.

Soon after the clashes on New Year's Eve, when the Russian army failed in an attempt to storm Grozny in a tank assault, the riot-police unit received word that its mission was being extended to 26 January. It was at that moment that the unit, cold, hungry and disheartened, decided to go back to Yekaterinburg.

The return enhances the impression that Mr Yeltsin and his allies in the army and security services are presiding over one of the most disorganised military campaigns in modern Russian history. Inexperienced conscripts were used in the initial attacks onGrozny, and overall Russian army and Interior Ministry losses are officially estimated at more than 250 dead.

The head of Yekaterinburg's riot police yesterday denied the mutiny report, saying that not a single member of the OMON force stationed near Grozny had deserted.

He said a 100-strong unit had been replaced last week "according to schedule" and threatened "appropriate measures" against a regional police official cited as the source of the mutiny reports.

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