Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, the New York-based human rights monitoring group, has accused the Russian armed forces of disregarding the safety of civilians in waging their war against separatist fighters in Chechnya. However, in a report based on a fact-finding mission to the region last January, the group also charged the Chechen rebels with violating international humanitarian law by taking civilians hostage and using them as human shields.
"As has been the case throughout this war, the Russian army continues to show total disregard for the safety of the civilian population," the group said. "The shelling of the village of Pervomayskoye in January 1996 is only one of the most recent, dramatic examples of the Russian army's systematic violation of humanitarian law during its war in Chechnya."
Russian forces destroyed Pervomayskoye, a village in the republic of Dagestan, after trapping a group of rebels there with about 160 hostages, mostly from the nearby town of Kizlyar. The Human Rights Watch report quoted the imam of the local mosque, Magomet Aliyev, as saying the rebels had not killed any villagers.
It added: "Beginning on 15 January, Russian forces pounded Pervomayskoye with artillery and helicopter-launched shelling for three days and destroyed the village entirely. It appears that this disproportionate use of force cost the lives of about 16 hostages whom Chechen rebels had scattered in houses throughout the village."
Representatives from Human Rights Watch who visited Pervomayskoye on 23 January concluded that 10 per cent of all homes had been razed, 45 per cent had been rendered uninhabitable and 40 per cent had suffered significant damage. However, while criticising the Russian army for excessive use of force, the report accused the Chechen rebels in Kizlyar and Pervomayskoye of committing summary executions, using a hospital and apartment buildings for military purposes, and holding civilians as human shields.
The report also discussed the fighting last December in Gudermes, Chechnya's second biggest city, where the rebels launched an assault against Russian forces who had taken control in March 1995. Criticising the scale of Russian retaliation, the report said: "The use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force in Gudermes, the village of Shelkovskaya and other villages nearby resulted in massive destruction and the loss of untold lives."