Russians 'torched' Chechen civilians

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The Independent Online
The discovery of eight scorched and mutilated corpses, alleged to be civilians murdered by frenzied Russian soldiers, sent tensions soaring in Chechnya yesterday and raised fears of retaliatory terrorist attacks in Russian cities. Chechen villagers and Western eyewitnesses saw six corpses burned beyond recognition on the road leading west from Grozny, Chechnya's capital, and another two blood- soaked corpses with their ears cut off.

Local Chechens, hysterical with rage and grief, blamed the killings on rampaging Russian troops who they said had attacked a group of civilians in their cars on Monday night. They accused the soldiers, who arrived in two armoured personnel carriers, of shooting their victims, cutting their throats, soaking their bodies in petrol and setting them on fire.

Four burnt-out cars lay at the scene of the killings, which represented the worst atrocity in Chechnya since a shaky truce took effect last month between Russian forces and separatist Chechen rebels. The Interfax news agency reported that 13 people had died.

The villagers' description of a brutal and unprovoked slaughter by wild soldiers was denied by the Russian armed forces. They blamed the killings on the rebels. However, representatives of the pro-Moscow Chechen government appeared to endorse much of the villagers' version of events. A deputy prime minister, Abdullah Bug-ayev, quoted witnesses as saying that troops had gunned down the victims. The government's press spokesman, Ruslan Martagov, pointed the finger of guilt at "the party of war", a term that denotes hardliners in the Russian army and security services.

He also said that three more disfigured corpses had been discovered yesterday in Katyr-Yurt, about 17 miles south-west of Grozny. Mr Martagov quoted local residents as saying Russian troops were responsible.

The impression of worsening anarchy in Chechnya was enhanced by a report that Russian troops in Grozny fired last Sunday on a vehicle belonging to their own side. A teenage civilian was killed in the crossfire and two women were wounded, according to a Chechen interior ministry spokesman.

Russian military operations have returned to pre-truce levels since President Boris Yeltsin was re-elected on 3 July. Russian forces have launched artillery and air strikes at rebel strongholds in south-east Chechnya, killing dozens of civilians and fighters. There seems no chance of a Russian military withdrawal from the republic by 1 September, as foreseen in the truce.

The resumption of attacks on civilians has disturbed Western governments, which kept silent about the Chechen war during the presidential campaign in order not to jeopardise Mr Yeltsin's re-election. Mr Yeltsin bluntly told the visiting United States Vice-President, Al Gore, this week that although he wanted a negotiated settlement, "bandits" had to be suppressed.

Spokesmen for the rebels said that one Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev, favoured "pin-point strikes against vital targets" in Russia in retaliation for the new Russian offensive. Last year he carried out a notorious armed raid on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk in which more than 100 people died.

The rebels denied an accusation last Tuesday by Russia's Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov, that they were behind two bomb attacks last week that wounded 33 people on Moscow's trolleybus system.

Russia's leading human rights activist, Sergei Kovalyov, who suffered a heart attack last week, condemned the latest Russian assaults in a letter to Mr Yeltsin from his hospital bed. "The day after the official announcement of the election results, you renewed the bloody Chechen war - that same war which you pledged to stop, thereby assuring yourself of election victory," he wrote. "You have crudely deceived 40 million voters who supported you."