NAZRAN, Russia, Feb 23 (Reuters)
- Chechens marked a tense anniversary of the Soviet-era mass deportation
of their people on Wednesday as a human rights body accused Russian forces
of killing civilians in the rebel region.
A top general said the five-month-old war would end soon. But since Russia seized the ruined capital Grozny at the end of last month, world attention has shifted to the conduct of its troops.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement it had evidence that Russian soldiers murdered at least 62 civilians in the Aldi district of Chechnya's shattered capital Grozny on February 5 in what the New York-based watchdog called a "killing spree".
It published a list of names of 50 victims
of what it called a "pattern of summary executions" in the ruined
capital, including 34 it said were killed in Aldi. It said each name was
provided by at least two witnesses in separate interviews.
Moscow has denied its forces carried out systematic abuses.
Border kept shut
Moscow kept Chechnya's border with the rest of Russia shut, a security measure against feared raids tied to the anniversary of the deportation. On February 23, 1944, nearly 650,000 Chechens were packed into railway cattle cars, sent to Siberia and Central Asia on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Russia has warned rebels might use the anniversary, which is coincidentally also Russia's Defender of the Fatherland Day holiday, as an opportunity to stage guerrilla strikes. The rebel Kavkaz.org website said the guerrillas had no such plans.
A policeman guarding a checkpoint at Chechnya's western border told Reuters the frontier would be shut for the day, and maybe longer, to stop rebels crossing to neighbouring regions.
About 200 refugees gathered at the border to protest against the closure. They waved a red and green Chechen flag and held aloft a banner saying: "Stalin, Yeltsin, Putin are bandits!" The border is the route that more than 200,000 refugees have used to flee the war, and many had been travelling back and forth to bring food and supplies to relatives left behind.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who had urged Moscow to find a political settlement to the campaign, said after meeting Acting President Vladimir Putin that Russia had listened to the West's criticism of the assault.
"Expressions of concern from the West have not fallen on deaf ears," Cook told a news conference.
He welcomed Russia's appointment of a human rights envoy for Chechnya and said Putin had reassured him about the fate of journalist Andrei Babitsky, missing for more than a month after he was arrested by Russian forces. Russia says it turned him over to Chechen rebels in a prisoner swap.
The latest accusations were likely to
raise the temperature of international criticism, intensifying over the
"A large group of Russian soldiers, possibly more than 100, went to the Aldi district and systematically murdered civilians in their homes and on the streets," Human Rights Watch said in its statement.
General says war to end soon
Gennady Troshev, a top commander in the region, told NTV television that the campaign would end soon. "In the coming days, the point of this operation will be known," Troshev said.
Russia's military was focusing its drive on Shatoi, the largest rebel-held village in the Argun gorge, where officials have said between 5,000 and 6,000 rebels are holed up.
The rebels said they were mounting counter-attacks along the steep gorge, their last remaining stronghold.
The rebel Internet web site Kavkaz.org said the fighters had brought down three helicopters, one over the village of Aslambek-Sheripov and two others in a nearby region, but Troshev denied the report. Over the weekend, Russia confirmed the rebels had downed one helicopter.
Putin also proposed extending until April 1 an amnesty for fighters who surrender. A previous amnesty expired on February 1. The State Duma lower house of parliament would consider the proposal, Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov told reporters.
Russia has rounded up hundreds of suspected fighters and is holding them in a prison camp in Chernokozovo in northern Chechnya. Russia has denied media and human rights group reports that many of the prisoners have been tortured.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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