Killing casts light on Moscow's dirty war in Chechnya deckys

Steve Crawshaw in Argun witnessed the brutal after-effects of Russia's assault on a police station
There are lies and there are brazen lies. A scuffed blue coffin placed on two chairs in the garden of No 4 Gagarin Street in the little town of Argun serves as a reminder that Moscow still prefers brazen lies in its war in Chechnya.

The coffin under the apple trees in Gagarin Street contains a 50-year- old Russian called Anatoly Sokolov. Moscow talks peace, but kills people like Anatoly Sokolov.

Sokolov died because he braved gunfire to save his Chechen neighbours.They wept bitter tears for him yesterday. "How can they think of an action like this?" asked Sveta Khamtsoyeva, whose children Sokolov had helped to save.

In the back of the garden, two other neighbours fashioned a rough Orthodox cross for Sokolov's grave. "He looks so peaceful, so friendly so good" said Khamzat Surkhayev, who risked his own life in a vain attempt to get his Russian friend to a hospital in time.

Yesterday it was possible to enter the half-destroyed town of Argun, only five miles east of the Chechen capital, Grozny. On Monday evening, the Russians sealed off the town and "stormed" the police station. The word "storming" must go in inverted commas since it is perhaps the strangest storming of a building the world has seen.

Theoretically the action was to get rid of an alleged 250 Chechen rebels (some believe the real number to have been much lower) who had occupied the police station. But in a four-hour bombardment by tanks and helicopter gunships the police station itself was almost entirely unscathed.

To be precise, two windows were broken. With a macabre sense of irony a truck yesterday was already unloading replacement panes of glass .

All around were signs of the savage destruction the Russian forces had unleashed on Monday. Several houses were completely destroyed. Moscow admitted that two people might have died. In Argun it quickly became clear that at least five had died - two Chechens and three Russians, perhaps four.

It seems that the only casualties were civilians. Crucially, too, the rebels the Russians were allegedly so anxious to flush out were able to leave Argun unmolested, on Monday night. So much for a "successful operation", as it was officially described.

Sokolov died soon after the Russian assault began. He and seven others had been sheltering in the garage next door to the little house in Gagarin Street. To start with they all just sat on the floor but then bullets sprayed through the doors.

Sixty-six-year old Maria Stupkina pointed to the holes in the washing machine, a few inches from where she sat. Everybody flew down into the tiny inspection pit beneath the garage floor. Sokolov ran out to fetch the children from next door.

When Sokolov was hit, Mr Surkhayev drove through gunfire to the hospital but the medical staff had abandoned their posts because the hospital itself was under fire.

He then tried to drive to another hospital 10 miles away along unmade roads but the Russian military checkpoints did not want to let him through. "I had to shout and rage, it took me 10 or 15 minutes at each checkpoint "

By the time he reached the hospital, more than an hour later, Sokolov's life could no longer be saved.

Talks continued in Grozny again yesterday about how to implement a military accord theoretically agreed at the end of last month.

But the Kremlin insists that the Chechen rebels who had occupied the police station were in breach of the July agreement and, therefore, had to be ejected.

But, as the death of Anatoly Sokolov showed so clearly, Moscow still refuses to acknowledge the nightmarish reality of the war that it has unleashed.