Secret film shows proof of massacre by Russian troops

AS SOON as you arrive in Alkhan-Yurt, it is clear the place has been through a terrible ordeal. Most of the buildings have been flattened, and all those that remain are pitted with shell or bullet holes. But it is what happened after the Russian forces ended their massive artillery bombardment and moved in that has caused such anger and grief here.

"The Russians have been beheading people," one woman said, sobbing as she told her story in the muddy main street, churned up by armoured vehicles. "I saw the bodies of seven or eight people without heads. They threw grenades in the cellars where we were hiding. We have been living from hand to mouth ever since."

People said the ears had been cut from some of the severed heads, taken away as trophies of war by the Russian troops. Many people wept openly in the street as they told us how drunken soldiers had begun systematically looting - and had shot anyone who protested.

"The Russian soldiers came into our house and they made us kneel down," one old woman said. "I was crying and I said, `I'm a grandmother, my son, why do you make me kneel?' They said, `We're sent here to kill you.' I said, `Would you kill your grandmother?' and they spared me. But I had to beg for my life."

The villagers said that 41 men and women were killed, all civilians. If true, it is the worst atrocity of the war. The killings were said to have taken place between 1 December and 15 December.

Towards the end of this period, refugees began telling the Human Rights Watch organisation that something terrible had happened in Alkhan-Yurt. The first reports from the village itself were carried by the BBC on Monday - prompting the Russian Defence Ministry to issue a flat denial that any incident had taken place.

But yesterday, Human Rights Watch was given photographs smuggled out of the village substantiating some of the allegations of atrocities. One picture showed the head of a young man partly wrapped in a blanket and placed next to his body. The ear on one side of his face was missing.

And an amateur video emerged, showing that the Russian deputy prime minister with responsibility for Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, made a secret visit to Alkhan-Yurt at the weekend, promising that justice would be done. In contradiction to earlier blanket denials, military sources yesterday said an inquiry into the allegations of a massacre was now expected.

On the video, Mr Koshman can be seen angrily upbraiding army officers in the village. "You will be held personally responsible for this," he tells one officer, who appears to hold the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. "I have never seen anything like it anywhere in Chechnya."

Mr Koshman is given documents containing the names of the dead and how they died. "There are eyewitnesses," he says handing the papers to a man identified as a military prosecutor. The film also shows piles of stolen goods that have been loaded into Russian vehicles: video recorders, carpets, crockery, an album of family photographs spattered with blood, presumably from the rightful owners.

The video was taken by a cameraman working for Malik Saidullayev, a millionaire Chechen businessman who is an ally of Moscow against the Islamic hardliners, but whose home is in Alkhan-Yurt.

Mr Saidullayev has now declared that he will run for the Chechen presidency after the war. One reason he is publicising this damaging material could be to boost his popularity by showing he can stand up to Russian excesses.

The film shows Mr Saidullayev walking through the village, accompanied by Mr Koshman and several generals. He notices a dug-out full of Russian soldiers drinking tea and - to Mr Koshman's embarrassment - they are drinking out of cups stolen from Mr Saidullayev's home.

A spokesman for Human Rights Watch said it was vital that Western observers be included in the investigation.