Russians propose special enclaves for Chechens

CHECHNYA Senior Moscow official appeals to the 200,000 who fled bombardment to return to their homes and live under military protection

A SENIOR Russian official yesterday raised the prospect of Chechen civilians living in protected villages under the eye of the Russian army, to solve the Chechnya refugee crisis.

Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Emergency Situations Minister, urged more than 200,000 Chechens who have fled to neighbouring Ingushetia to return.

The ITAR-Tass news agency said he promised: "The government will guarantee full security to people who return to liberated Chechen villages."

Mr Shoigu said the Russian government was planning to set up well-protected camps for civilians in the northern third of the separatist republic the Russian army now controls. He said there was already accommodation for 30,000 people and appealed for refugees to come to Russian-controlled areas.

A policy of protected camps is being followed by the Tutsi-led Burundi government which is fighting a Hutu rebellion. But the practice, which has led to almost 200,000 people being forcibly moved into the "regroupment camps" protected by the army has been criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups. The civilians are virtual prisoners and few are allowed to work in the fields.

Russia insists Chechnya is a haven for international terrorism and is determined to drive out "terrorists, bandits and warlords" who, says the Kremlin, have made the separatist region ungovernable. But Russia's two- month bombing campaign has killed numerous civilians and forced the massive exodus of villagers.

Chechnya had enjoyed de facto independence from Moscow following a three- year war which ended in 1996. But the Russian government says the republic must return to the fold - by force if necessary.

The Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said yesterday: "Our actions in connection with Chechen and other territories where there are manifestations of terrorism are directed exclusively at suppressing terrorists, not at achieving some political goals."

Chechen civilians on the border reacted sceptically to the Russian offer of protected villages.

"It's impossible to stay in the village; you can't let your cow out," said Tatyana Durchiyeva, from the village of Arshty. "The [Russian] soldiers steal everything ... they drink vodka and trample our vegetable plots with their tanks."

Idris Elgukayev, a village elder in Sernovodsk, just inside Chechnya, said: "When they started shooting, everyone started packing up their things and leaving. No more than 20 percent of people stayed there either because they couldn't leave, they were too old, or they did not fear the Russians." Another refugee, Zalman Magomayeva, said: "They even stole our onions. They took the flour and the cattle. Even if we go back there is nothing for us to live on."

Chechnya is running out of food. Lida Akuyeva, from the village of Samashki, said: "We were so hungry we took a chance and went into a village to buy food but they didn't have any bread to sell."

On Wednesday, the Russian military reopened the main highway between Ingushetia and Chechnya, where thousands of refugees had massed.

Ali Dudarov, commander of the Ingush border guards service, said 2,065 people had been allowed to cross on Thursday. About 1,200 more came by midday Friday. Many yelled insults at Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo when he visited the refugee camp in Sleptsovskaya yesterday.

"You should have better killed us back there," one exasperated woman shouted.

In Russia, the campaign appears to have broad support so far. Muslim Chechen militants twice invaded the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan this summer and are blamed for a series of apartment bombings that killed some 300 people in Russia in September.

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