Villagers bear the brunt of Russia's rage

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The Independent Online
This time, at least, the Russians gave some warning of their intentions. Troops drove two light tanks up to the entrance of this village on the western road to Grozny and screamed an ultimatum through a loudspeaker: "Hand over all weapons or endu re rockets, artillery and air strikes."

"They announced that if we did not give up our weapons they would annhilate the village," said Khas-Magomed Masarov, acting chief administrator of this settlement off the main road used by Russian forces in their advance into Chechnya from Ingushetia. "But they did not say how or to whom we were supposed to give up the weapons."

A muddy rural backwater whose only "strategic" target is a dairy farm, Assinovskaya is far from what is supposed to be the real objective of Russia's military adventure in Chechnya, the flaming, bombed out hulk of Dzhokhar Dudayev's presidential palace in Grozny.

But this has not spared villagers from a Russian military campaign that seems increasingly driven by unfocused rage, reckless disarray and terrifying disorganisation that makes it impossible to calcualte danger.

Saturday's ultimatum prompted Mr Masarov and villager elders to try to meet the Russian commander, Lieutenant-General Yuli Kosolapov. They held out little hope. They met him last week and reached what they thought was an agreement to avoid provocations

on both sides. "But after we met they bombarded the village with heavy artillery, killing livestock and knocking out our communications, gas and electricity and water."

Yesterday, Mr Masarov and his companions waited on the road for two hours, flashing headlights and sounding the horn in a pre-arranged signal. No one came to meet them. The only response they received from the Russian military was the scream of jets overhead early yesterday afternoon. They flew low over the village twice. "We have no faith in this army. They can do anything they want, any minute they want," said Mr Masarov. "These forces are not controlled by their commanders and they are demoralised. The two times they have come over is when they were drunk."

Chosen by the Russian military as the site of its main checkpoint on the road from Ingushetia to Grozny, Assinovskaya saw fierce fighting at the start of Russia's advance last month. But even with the main force now engaged in the far more important battle for Grozny itself, the villagers of Assinovskaya still suffer from the unfathomable logic of a military venture denounced as incompetent by many of Russia's own generals.

Most out of control, say villagers, are the troops of Russia's Interior Ministry. Unlike the conscripts who make up much of the regular army, this force, dressed in a blue camoufalge fatigues with matching ski hats, is manned by what are supposed to be professionals.

Many villagers have fled, including Olga Sokulova, a 40-year-old mother of two who left behind a desperate plea to the commanding officer in the region. In it she tells how four masked Russian soldiers knocked on her door on Sernovodskaya Street two daysago and threatened to blow up the building if she refused to let them in. Once inside, they ransacked each room, stole her wedding ring and then dragged her into another room. There, she says, they raped her in turn. "I have no other choice but to leave, I beg you to help me," reads her appeal.

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