Russians `kill 250 Chechen civilians'

Amid mounting evidence of what could be one of worst single atrocities of the four-month war in Chechnya, the International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday said that Moscow's forces had killed at least 250 people, most of them civilians, during an onslaught last Saturday on the rebel stronghold of Samashki.

This unusually blunt condemnation of the Russian assault on the village west of Grozny - as an "indiscriminate attack against civilians and a flagrant violation of humanitarian law" - adds weight to earlier claims of Russian human rights monitors and fleeing villagers of a bloody Russian rampage.

It also sets back attempts by Moscow to distract attention from the carnage of its Chechen adventure ahead of a gathering of Western leaders in Moscow on 9 May to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Washington has warned that the fighting in Chechnya could wreck it.

After anoffensive that pushed most rebels into the foothills of the Caucasus, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Russian Prime Minister, yesterday declared the "main military operations in Chechnya are over". President Boris Yeltsin said almost the same thing in late December.

Russia's own version of what happened in Samashki, which was one of the last strongholds of rebels loyal to DzhokharDudayev, is confused.

The Itar-Tass news agency yesterday quoted Vladimir Vorozhtsov, chief spokesman of the Russian command headquarters at Mozdok, as denying any large number of civilian casualties. In the same report, however, Lieutenant- General Anatoly Anotonov, commander of Interior Ministry troops in Chechnya, was quoted as saying many Chechen civilians had been killed in Samashki but that they had been shot dead by Chechen fighters.

The assertion that MrDudayev's men had killed their own people echoes the implausible claim made by Moscow in the early stages of the war that Chechens had blown up buildings in Grozny to simulate bomb damage by Russian warplanes.

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