Russians 'kidnap' Chechen officials

STEVE CRAWSHAW

Grozny

Russia, which is theoretically talking peace to the Chechen rebels, is simultaneously flouting international rules in its not-yet-finished war in Chechnya.

First-hand accounts given to the Independent, and confirmed by Western officials, describe how Chechen rebels invited for official disarmament talks at a Russian military base were, in effect, kidnapped. The Chechens - loyal to the ousted president, Dzhokhar Dudayev - were held blindfold, threatened and beaten.

They were only released after their colleagues alerted the pan-European security organisation, the OSCE.

OSCE officials in the Chechen capital, Grozny, confirmed the events and suggested Russian strong-arm tactics are widespread. One official said: "The Russians are trying to intimidate the Chechens".

The OSCE has played a key role in brokering peace talks in Chechnya, leading to a military accord signed at the end of last month. None the less, when Vakha Merzhoyev, a rebel commander, was released after OSCE intervention, he says that he was threatened with lethal consequences if he talked about what had happened. "They said: 'We'll send you to Mozdok [the Russian military headquarters for the region]. And you know whether you'll come back from there'."

The Independent spoke to Mr Merzhoyev and to his driver, who gave similar accounts of the detention, and how they were beaten and threatened before the OSCE's intervention got them out. While being held, the men obtained the names of fellow prisoners, which they gave to the OSCE in Grozny. Those prisoners were released after OSCE intervention. The OSCE believes this pattern of violations is continuing,

Chechens have obvious reasons for playing up Russian abuses of human- rights but the manner in which the story emerged lends it basic authenticity. The details emerged almost in passing, at the end of an interview. They did not have the picturesque fluency of a concocted narrative, but came out in disjointed fashion, in response to questioning. OSCE officials confirmed that the three men, when released, showed clear signs of having been beaten.

Widespread local reports that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Chechens, some blindfolded, some not, are being held in lorries at a Russian military base 30 miles west of Grozny could not be independently confirmed. Chechens claim that the lorries ("prisons on wheels", in one Chechen's phrase) are moved away if international visitors are expected.

Russia's war on the breakaway republic, which began at the end of last year, was condemned around the world for the enormous destruction and civilian losses it caused.

Recently, the Russians haveportrayed themselves as eager for peace. The illegal mistreatment of Chechens calls this into question.

If the Chechens carried out kidnappings and beatings while peace talks are taking place, the news would be trumpeted by Moscow. But there have been no such allegations which can be confirmed by the OSCE.

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