Forty refugees massacred by Russian soldiers

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RUSSIAN SOLDIERS opened fire at close range on a column of Chechen refugees yesterday, killing 40 and wounding many others. The refugees were attacked even though a woman carrying a white flag was walking in front of the convoy.

The killings, near the village of Goity, eight miles from the Chechen capital, Grozny, took place as the fighting increased. It was reported that 250 Russian soldiers had been killed in an attack by Chechen fighters.

Aisa Bakaiva, whose sister was hit in the head by a bullet, said that soldiers at a checkpoint had threatened to shoot the refugees if they went any further, but also refused to let them go back the way they had come.

After pleading with the soldiers for an hour, the refugees were told they could go. The convoy moved forward slowly with a woman called Taisa Aidamirova walking in front. As she got back into a car the soldiers opened fire. Mrs Bakaiva said: "All the cars but two were destroyed and many people burnt to death in a bus."

Russian forces have shown scant regard for civilian casualties in Chechnya. When a mine explosion blew up a Russian armoured personnel carrier in Achkoi-Martan, in western Chechnya, last week, the Russians retaliated by shelling the town, killing nine people and wounding 28. Russian commanders, who had agreed a truce with local leaders only two days before, said later that the bombardment was a mistake - the crew of the personnel carrier had been drunk and blundered into a Russian-laid minefield. "People were in the streets because the local ceasefire made them feel safe," said Layla, a Chechen journalist from Achkoi-Martan. "This is why the casualties were so high. People didn't take cover fast enough."

The shelling of Achkoi- Martan shows the perils facing Chechens who do not want to fight. "Frankly, only a small proportion of the population wants to fight in our town," Layla said. "We don't want people to die uselessly. It is very different from the last war when all Chechens were together on the same side."

All refugees say that they have to pay bribes to get through Russian lines. One bus driver was stopped by a Russian soldier who told him that the number on his documents did not coincide with the number on his vehicle. "If I paid you 100 roubles would it coincide?" asked the bus driver. "No," the soldier said, "but it would for 200 roubles."

Even in a non-militant town such as Achkoi-Martan it is dangerous to take the Russian side too overtly. Five days ago Said Ali Gasaev, 28, decided to join the newly formed militia of Beslan Gantemirov, a notorious pro-Moscow politician who was recently released from jail after serving a sentence for corruption. He said he joined Mr Gantemirov because "we are sick and tired of disorder here". He was issued with a gun, but said he was not paid.

Mr Gasaev's military career did not last long. Four days after he volunteered, he was attacked while visiting a nearby village with other militiamen. Lying in a hospital bed in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia, he said: "They fired on us from three sides. I was hit in the right wrist and left shoulder. Two other men with me were wounded and a woman passer-by was killed."

The Chechen guerrillas have suffered few casualties. Layla said that a day of Russian shelling in Achkoi-Martan "killed three cows and wounded the cowherd on the outskirts of the town. The next thing we heard on the radio was that 70 Chechen fighters had been killed."

Lieutenant-Colonel Lecha Visaitov was badly wounded when a Russian helicopter fired a rocket at a funeral he was attending in Achkoi- Martan in October. He does not believe the Russians are in the town to stay. "They will not be able to hold the positions they have taken in Chechnya," he said. "There are too many Chechen fighters who have moved into the mountains further south and they are bound to counter-attack."