(Nazran, January 13, 2000) -- Human Rights Watch has found that Islamic fighters in Chechnya are abusing civilians and endangering their lives by provoking Russian counter-attacks on civilian neighborhoods.
Chechen fighters have repeatedly beaten and threatened civilians who attempted to spare their villages from Russian bombardment. They have also endangered civilians by taking positions in areas that were heavily populated by civilians and firing at Russian aircraft.
"Chechen fighters are endangering civilians by trying to hide in their midst," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "But they are bound by the laws of war as much as any combatants. We call upon the fighters to take all necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties."
As in the 1994-1996 war, Chechen civilians, chiefly the village elders, often try to prevent the destruction of their villages by approaching the Russian military and by encouraging Chechen combatants to leave their villages. Human Rights Watch has learned that in at least four villages, Chechen fighters, or "Wahabbis" (as they are commonly called in Chechnya, due to their alleged conservative interpretation of Islam), have beaten and threatened civilians who asked the fighters to leave.
In Dyshne-Vedeno, a village in southern Chechnya near the Dagestani border, Islamic fighters detained and beat the head of the village administration and his sixteen-year-old son after he met with local Russian commanders to seek an end to Russian bombing there. According to village resident "Magomet" (not his real name), on December 17, 1999 the fighters detained the official, Ramzan, and his son. The latter was found severely beaten the next morning near the village cemetery, but Ramzan himself was not released. When a large group of villagers, including Magomet, tried to negotiate Ramzan's release with Salman Basayev (the father of Chechen commander Shamil Basayev), they were told to go away. When villagers tried again on the following day (Dec 19) to meet with Chechen commanders, the fighters fired at the feet of the crowd and forced them to retreat. Ramzan was released a week later, and told Magomet that he had been severely beaten.
Magomet told Human Rights Watch about other abuses committed by Chechen fighters under the command of Khattab, one of the principle commanders in Chechnya who is believed to be from the Middle East, and Shamil Basayev in Dyshne-Vedeno. In early January, Magomet found the body of a Russian soldier whose throat had been cut in the village's Oktiabrski district, across the road from a group of Wahabbi fighters. When he asked the fighters why the soldier had been killed, they replied that it was their standard practice to slit the throats of captured Russian soldiers. The execution of prisoners of war is specifically prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and constitutes a war crime.
Magomet also said that Wahabbi fighters frequently fired on Russian war planes flying overhead, provoking the planes into bombing the village. "It is as though they are . . .giving them an excuse to bomb the village, " he said. According to Magomet, Wahabbi fighters sometimes deployed anti-aircraft weapons inside villagers' backyards, drawing war planes into bombing civilian areas of the village. On Friday, January 7, two Russian war planes bombed the mosque in Dyshne-Vedeno during the mid-afternoon prayer session (at about 2:30 p.m.), causing eleven deaths, all civilians. Many civilians were trapped in the village, unable to leave because of the continuous fighting and shelling in the area.
Magomet's account of Chechen and Russian abuses in the village could not be independently confirmed because few villagers from Dyshne-Vedeno have apparently been able to travel to Ingushetia. However, his detailed account was consistent with accounts received about similar abuses committed by Chechen fighters elsewhere in Chechnya. On January 3 at about 4:00 a.m., Chechen fighters returned to the village of Ermolovski, just west of the Chechen capital, Grozny. "Akhmed" (not his real name) described what happened when the village elders tried to appeal to the fighters, begging them to leave the village and spare its destruction:
The fighters didn't listen to the elders, they didn't listen to anyone. We tried and tried to talk to them, so that they wouldn't come to the village. We kneeled before them. They told us, 'Get out [of the village] if you want to live, we're going to fight here.' What happened? People were killed and the village destroyed. ... All the villagers who could, gathered in the center. In response the fighters began firing into the air, and into the ground saying 'Disperse, disperse,' trying to scare us. The elders said 'Why should we leave? Let's talk, you are all our sons and brothers, think about that.' The fighters said, 'No, we're going to fight.'
The villagers dispersed, and Russian forces began shelling the village the next day, causing civilian casualties, according to Akhmed.
On December 18, civilians in Staraya Sunzha, an outlying district of Grozny, attempted to install a checkpoint on the road leading to Grozny to keep Chechen fighters and lawless elements out of their neighborhood.
According to Ali Murdalov, who witnessed the events, Chechen commander Shamil Basayev personally came to the checkpoint the next day with a group of about forty fighters, accused the villages of supporting pro-Moscow Chechen commander Beslan Gantemirov, and demanded that the villagers hand over a large number of weapons (which Murdalov says they did not posses). When the villagers attempted to approach Basayev, his fighters fired at the feet of the civilians to force them to retreat. A scuffle broke out after Basayev ordered all the men arrested. Basayev's troops arrested eighteen civilians, and the next day released all but one, whom they detained for a week and beat repeatedly. According to Murdalov, who saw the man after he was released, "He had bruises all over and some of his ribs were broken." The civilians were forced to remove their roadblock and grant Chechen fighters free access to their neighborhood.
Chechen fighters similarly refused to leave the village of Alkhan-Yurt in November, before the Russian forces seized the town and went on a rampage, looting many homes and killing at least nineteen civilians, many of whom were summarily executed by Russian soldiers for resisting looting (see Human Rights Watch's December 28 letter to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin).
Waha Muradov, a respected elder and the Mullah (Muslim religious leader) of Alkhan-Yurt, told Human Rights Watch that during the last two weeks of November he repeatedly tried to persuade the fighters to leave Alkhan-Yurt. He first met with the fighters on November 16, telling them that the Russian forces were on a ridge overlooking the village and would destroy the village by shelling. "I begged them on behalf of the village, please leave, this is no place for you to fight." The rebel commander replied that he would not retreat, and when the Mullah insisted, the fighters started firing their weapons in the air, threatening to shoot him and the other village elders if they did not leave immediately: "We met three times with the fighters, every time they kept saying the same thing, that they were not going to leave. Everyone is afraid of them." The Mullah and other villagers from Alkhan-Yurt claimed that there were many non-Chechens fighting with Chechen forces, including Dagestanis, Uzbek, Kazakhs, and men from the Middle East.
"Valentina" (not her real name), a sixty-year-old woman from Grozny, told Human Rights Watch that she had seen Chechen fighters in the capital fire at war planes flying overhead, thereby endangering civilians in the neighborhood: "They climbed up onto the roof of the school and brought the machine-gun up onto the roof and started to shoot at the planes. Then they left. The school was left undamaged, but in place of two houses [next to the school], there were two large craters. The houses were destroyed by direct hits." On another occasion, according to Valentina, Chechen fighters were driving around Grozny in a heavy-duty military truck with a twin-barreled large machine gun. A plane flew by and the fighters started to shoot at it. People came out onto the streets and told the fighters not to shoot at the planes because the machine-gun fire would not reach the high-flying planes, but would draw fire. After the fighters drove away, the planes bombed the area.
Human Rights Watch stressed that the abuses by Chechen fighters could not serve to justify the widespread indiscriminate shelling and bombing campaign of the Russian forces. "No matter how provocative Chechen conduct may be, it cannot justify the targeting of civilian objects by Russian forces," said Cartner. "Civilians often find themselves caught between Chechen fighters who refuse to leave their towns, and Russian forces who are bombing and shelling their homes. Both sides need to take the necessary steps to limit the impact of their fighting on the civilian population, as required by the laws of war."
For more Human Rights Watch coverage of Chechnya, visit http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/russia/chechnya.
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