Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

US Critical of Russian War on Terrorism

Reports of Russian military atrocities in the latest mop-up operations in Chechnya are finally drawing US criticism.
By Ahmed Ahmadov

The US has criticised Russian military operations in Chechnya for the first time since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.


Last week, a special operation was carried out to rid the eastern Chechen town of Argun of separatist guerrillas, with reports of dozens of civilian casualties and the detention of many more.


"The latest information on Russian operations in Chechnya indicates a continuation of human rights violations," said US state department spokesman Richard Boucher on January 10, "and the use of overwhelming force against civilian targets."


Boucher also said that the combination of "credible reports" of human rights abuses and lack of a political solution to the Chechen crisis was actually providing fertile ground for terrorist activity.


President Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of the US-led war against terrorism to step up operations against Chechen separatists with civilians often the targets of military "mop-up operations". Moscow's " counter-terrorism" measures appear to be a cover for a multitude of human rights abuses.


More and more reports are coming in of arbitrary crimes against civilians. Human rights organisations say that since the latest wave of military sweeps started at the end of December soldiers have engaged in murder, torture and random executions.


Putin's administration was quick to criticise Boucher's remarks with an official statement saying that it regretted the tone of his remarks.


"Our experience in Chechnya and America's experience in Afghanistan shows how hard it is sometimes to reach terrorists and to prevent harm to civilians," Russian news agency Itar-Tas reported the Kremlin as saying.


However, the facts as told by civilians who have lost family members indicates that human rights abuses are continuing to ruin the lives of many innocent Chechens.


Salman told IWPR how his brother, Sulumbek, was killed for no reason back in October. They were waiting in their tractor for a military column to pass on the outskirts of the south-eastern Chechen town of Novy Sharoi. As the convoy passed, Salman spotted a soldier aiming a machine-gun at them. A shot rang out, killing his brother instantly.


The column continued on its way, ignoring Salman's protests. When he later appealed to the Chechen prosecutor's office and to the regional military authorities, his pleas were similarly disregarded.


Officials explain away such incidents by describing victims as terrorists, even if all the evidence points to the fact they had nothing at all to do with Chechen guerrillas.


The terrorist tag was hung on another two men killed by a land mine in the western Chechen town of Assinovski. The regional governor, Nazarbek Terxoev, claimed that the men must have been blown up while laying the ordnance.


Relatives say that this was not the case and that the military had a case to answer in laying mines so haphazardly that civilians were at constant risk. Needless to say there was no investigation into the deaths.


Those who have spoken out against the abuse in Chechnya are few and far between. The head of the Chechen regional administration, Ahmad Kadirov, has done so but since he is a puppet of Moscow his protests can hardly be taken very seriously.


Chechens believe that, as political head of the administration, he is under pressure to make some sort of comment but action is unlikely to follow.


Kadirov is powerless to bring the military under control and complaints about abuses fall on deaf ears. As the Russian saying goes, "Vasya listens but continues to eat."


Unsurprisingly, Russia's presidential commission for human rights in Chechnya has done little to combat abuses. Those who appeal to the commission run by Vladimir Kalamanov come away empty-handed.


As Mamed found out when seeking information about his missing cousin. "I appealed to Kalamanov's office to assist in the search for him. They said they would put his data into the computer but other than that they couldn't help," he said.


Workers at the commission's office in the town of Znamenskoye told Mamed that the office was not at all geared to dealing with missing persons or other complaints and that it existed mainly to deal with refugees and delivery of humanitarian aid.


So, Mamed next went down the well-trodden path to the Chechen prosecutor's office. He was also assisted by well-known Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. His efforts, however, came to naught.


The Russian parliament did attempt last year to bring some order to the Chechen situation by trying to declare a state of emergency in Chechnya. In effect, this would have led to the imposition of martial law which would curb abuses of military power. But the Kremlin and ministry of defence prevented legislation going through.


With most Russian media avoiding the issue of military abuses and tarring all Chechens with the same criminal brush, it is no wonder that the public continues to back the Chechen campaign and that opinion polls indicate half of the Russian population believes that all Chechens are potential terrorists.


Ahmed Ahmadov is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist based in Sernodovk, Chechnya.


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