CHECHNYA IS EUROPE'S WORST RIGHTS CRISIS: HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
AFP, 14 Jan 03, Miriam Elder
MOSCOW- Citing arbitrary detentions, disappearing civilians, sexual abuse
at the hands of troops and refugee camp closures, Human Rights Watch on
Tuesday described Russia's war in Chechnya as Europe's most intense human
It also harshly criticized NATO for forging closer ties with Moscow, accusing
the military alliance and other international groups of turning a blind
eye to what it called "continuing atrocities" committed by Russia
in the breakaway republic.
"Federal forces continued to brutalize civilians in the ongoing armed
conflict in Chechnya," the US-based human rights body said in its
annual report for 2002.
Any positive steps at reform in Russia were "entirely eclipsed by
continued atrocities committed in Chechnya, which remained the region's
most intense human rights crisis," it said.
The group said several women had come forward with reports of sexual violence
during military operations, and also gave examples of civilians who unexplainably
disappeared after being detained by Russian troops.
It criticized the Russian military for its so-called clean-up operations
in Chechnya, in which troops round up groups of civilians in an attempt
to weed out separatist rebels.
"During these operations, Russian troops detained numerous men, often
arbitrarily, and looted civilian homes," the report said. "Detainees
routinely faced ill-treatment and torture, and many subsequently 'disappeared.'"
An estimated 80,000 Russian troops currently serve in Chechnya, where
Moscow has been fighting to put down a separatist insurgency since October
The report singled out the clean-up operation in the Chechen village of
Stariye Atagy in March last year, during which it said federal troops
in unmarked cars drove off with dozens of men, 10 of whom later "disappeared".
Villagers later found seven burned bodies, but investigators failed to
identify them and the 10 men have not been seen since, it said.
Human Rights Watch also criticized separatist rebels for their attacks
against Russian interests and accused them of "failing to respect
the laws of war" when a Chechen team took hundreds of Moscow theatre-goers
hostage in October.
But it also slammed Russia's involvement in the deaths of some 129 of
the hostages, saying that "the government's failure to provide victims
adequate medical treatment raised questions about whether it had met its
obligation to minimize the loss of civilian life."
President Vladimir Putin's decision to pump a powerful opiate gas into
the theatre to subdue the hostage-takers before a pre-dawn raid was widely
praised in Russia, despite the fact that most of the hostages who died
were killed by the gas.
The group also said it was worried about Russia's decision to close all
refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia and urge displaced Chechens back
to their war-torn republic.
The report reserved harsh criticism for NATO, which formed a Russia-NATO
council in May to give Moscow a voice in several areas of alliance policy-making.
"The most glaring lapse was the creation of the NATO-Russia Council,
according Russia a special relationship notwithstanding Russian troops'
ongoing serious humanitarian law violations in Chechnya," the report
said, while also urging more European and UN involvement in the region.
It also accused the United States of failing to criticize Russia for its
"abusive war" in Chechnya, which Putin has framed as part of
the US-led global war on terror.
Moscow has been attempting to prove that the situation in Chechnya is
under control, scheduling a constitutional referendum for March that should
solidify the republic's place in the Russian Federation and is set to
be followed by presidential and legislative elections.