. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

6 Red Cross Staff Slain in Chechnya

Six foreign Red Cross hospital workers, five of them women, were shot dead in their sleep by masked gunmen early Tuesday in the Chechen town of Novye Atagi, prompting the organization to order the evacuation of all but a handful of its staff from Chechnya.

The gunmen stormed the hospital complex, located some 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny, in the pre-dawn hours, using silencers on their weapons as they walked from room to room, breaking doors and spraying bullets at random.

"They shot just like that, to be killing on purpose," said Thierry Meyrat, the Moscow head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, addressing a press conference in Moscow on Tuesday afternoon.

"We are deeply shocked, we are outraged at this criminal act. The decision to go back to Chechnya will be very difficult."

The ICRC office in Geneva identified the victims as Hans Elkerbout, a construction technician from The Netherlands; medical administrator Nancy Mallow of Canada; and nurses Ingebjorg Foss, 42, and Gunnhild Myklebust, 55, of Norway, Sheryl Thayer of New Zealand, and Fernanda Calvado of Spain.

Christophe Hensche, a Swiss national in charge of the Novye Atagi office, was wounded.

The organization was evacuating its staff of 70 to Nalchik on Tuesday evening, from where they will be transported to Switzerland and then on to their home countries.

A skeleton crew of five will remain in Grozny, Meyrat said, and some people will be stationed in the North Caucuses villages of Nalchik, Khasavyurt and Nazran.

Novye Atagi residents, long suspicious of Russia's motives in the Caucasus region, denounced the killings.

"We are trying to investigate it, but I am convinced it is a big provocation against Chechnya, against peace in Chechnya," a local police officer told Reuters. "We are sure that Russian intelligence is involved."

"No sane person could have done this," added Ali Zabarayev, 45. "We knew these people and they worked in our village, nobody from us could have done this."

It was the single worst attack on Red Cross workers in the organization's history, and the most serious violence against foreigners stationed in Chechnya since the war began in December 1994.

The aid organization gave no motive for the attack, except to say that robbery was not an option since no drugs or property were taken from the hospital.

Chechen leaders characterized the slaying as a provocation aimed at foiling next January's elections, while the Kremlin called the incident "a cruel and senseless crime."

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told reporters the government "offers sincere condolences to the friends and relatives of the victims of this barbaric attack."

The ash-gray, two story building with a bright red cross painted on its roof was lightly guarded, Meyrat said, since the village has long been considered a relatively safe haven in the war-torn republic.

He said workers had established good relations with the local commander, a Novye Atagi native, and although the ICRC had received threatening phone calls in the past few weeks, workers did not expect the hospital would be a target.

Agence France Presse reported the assailants exchanged fire with security before bursting into the building.

The hospital was established in September in order to deal with the wounded from an August rebel offensive during which they recaptured Grozny in a week a fierce fighting.

It was the only well-stocked hospital in the republic, with a staff of 15 foreign and 180 local workers. It housed 35 patients at the time of the attack, and handled more than 1,500 during its brief existence, Meyrat said.

"Humanitarian action could finally be operational and in this sense it is indeed a paradox, that this tragedy could happen when we could at last do work," Meyrat said. "There is no more respect of the Red Cross or other humanitarian organizations."

The Red Cross distributes food and water to the homeless, and its staff was working on repairing sewage and electricity in Grozny at the time of the sudden withdrawal.

It was the largest and longest-serving foreign aid organization in Chechnya, and Meyart said other foreigners -- including the election observers expected to arrive in late January -- will likely be scared off by the attack

"It's a political blow to many people," he said. "This feeling of lack of security will prevent many organizations from coming to Chechnya, especially if the culprits are not found."

Although three foreign aid workers had been temporarily taken hostage last month, Meyart said the Red Cross had been hopeful that the end of open hostilities meant relief workers would soon be working in a safer environment.

Agence France Presse reported that two French organizations, M?decins Sans Fronti?rs and Action contre la Faim, were also considering evacuation.

"When you have people killed, it means something," he said.

Ruslan Katuyev, a minister in Chechnya's coalition government, told Interfax the killings were an "intentional and planned provocation with the intent to cancel the elections for president and parliament scheduled for Jan. 27, 1997."

Federal forces, which at one point numbered 40,000 to 60,000 in Chechnya, are currently withdrawing their last two brigades from the region under a peace agreement that leaves the tiny republic's political status undefined until the year 2001.

January's elections will decide Chechnya's leadership until then, and tempers have flared as the date approaches.? (Reuters) -- Chechen field commander Salman Raduyev, defying the region's separatist leaders, said Tuesday that nobody could force him to free 21 Russian policemen his men seized Saturday.

Raduyev, whose dark beard disguises a face disfigured in a shootout earlier this year, also said no hostages would be released Tuesday, dampening hopes for a quick end to an incident that may damage Chechnya's delicate peace process.

"I have put my troops on red alert," Raduyev told Reuters outside his headquarters in the southern Chechen village of Novye Gordali. "If they [Russian or official Chechen forces] want to fight with me, let them come and we see who wins."