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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Refugees: Troops Brutalized Chechen Town

OUTSIDE SERNOVODSK, Chechnya -- Russian soldiers rampaged through this Chechen border town for several days, killing, raping and looting during a nine-day attack on the town, the mayor said Tuesday.


Refugees who fled after the fighting ended late last week told similar stories to reporters and aid workers at a checkpoint 2 kilometers from the town which soldiers prevented them from entering. The soldiers refused to talk about the hostilities.


"A group of soldiers raped one 17- or 18-year-old girl," said Boris Kiev, the Russian-backed head of the administration in Sernovodsk since last autumn. "I saw them going in one after the other and coming out of a house where they held her," he said.


Kiev said he knew of five or six other rape cases that occurred during the nine-day attack on his town.


He said he did not know the fate of the girl he saw. To show yourself or re The soldiers were from the 58th Army which last month encircled and threatened to attack two nearby Ingush villages after Chechen fighters ambushed their convoy as it entered Chechnya.


Persuaded by the president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, to leave his republic, the 58th Army moved back into Chechnya and turned its sights on Sernovodsk -- a Chechen town with a population of 15,000, and now swollen with thousands more refugees -- 45 kilometers west of the capital, Grozny. The Russian attack on the town coincided with a Chechen attack against Grozny which Russian troops beat back last week with heavy losses.


Other troops had encircled the town since last October but in the last month they started planning an assault, Kiev said, showing military maps captured from Russian soldiers. They demanded the village disarm, and the villagers bought 10 weapons to hand over. The Russians then demanded tanks and anti-aircraft guns, Kiev said, but the villagers had none.


When the Russians began their assault on March 3 with a massive artillery and helicopter bombardment, some men did take up arms, Kiev said. He said he and some other men eventually escaped six days later, crawling out at night and swimming across the river Sunzha into Ingushetia.


Irena Brezna, a Swiss freelance journalist who said she was smuggled into the village Monday by some Chechen women, described widespread destruction. Television pictures also showed the center of the town in ruins.


Houses were raked with gunfire and stripped of belongings, Brezna said. "An old woman showed me her room. There were 40 or 50 bullet holes in the room. They had just raked it with gunfire." All the while, the old woman said she had been cowering in the basement. Furniture, television, bedding and clothes were dragged into the streets and courtyards as if ready to be taken away, Brezna said. Many houses had been burned, apparently set on fire after being looted, the smoke still smoldering in heaps of trashed belongings.


The town was littered with dead cattle but Brezna said she saw only one dead man, unrecognizable except to his wife. Preliminary lists confirm 26 dead but Kiev and members from the human rights organization Memorial said they estimate that more than 100 died.


In the mosque, Chechen women found seven bodies burned to a cinder. They had brought the dead the first day of the assault to the mosque. Now the building is a burned shell, the bodies barely visible among the charred debris.


"It is like an ashtray," Brezna said.


"I have found my son," said a woman standing over a black mess which was only recognizable as a body by the bared skull and teeth, filmed on video by one of the Chechen women.


"I am sorry I did not ask Dudayev for assistance," Kiev said. He said that when he was elected last autumn, he made an agreement with the Moscow-backed government in Grozny and with the Russian Army that he would not let armed men into the town. In return, he expected the town to be left in peace.


But the Russian forces ignored the agreement, he said. "I feel like a hunted wolf. I should have asked my brothers and sisters and saved my town. If we had had arms we would have been able to save many lives."


Yakha Beseyeva, 56, returned to the village Sernovodsk on Monday to retrieve some belongings. Soldiers taunted her when she found her house destroyed, she said.


"'Have you got anything more for us, grandma?' they said," she said. "They are trying to hide the traces of what they have done."


Beseyeva, who escaped from the village early in the siege, said she had buried several neighbors killed in the street.


Nario Goethlas, a doctor with M?dicins sans Fronti?res, said Russian soldiers had refused them entrance to the village. No humanitarian aid has reached the town for months, he said.


"The picture is not complete. They are systematically looting, that is confirmed by everyone who has been in the town today."


Refugees had told him that they had lost relatives in the fighting. "They appeared to be civilians. One woman left her son, another her husband." The biggest and most beautiful houses are being set on fire and all the valuable goods are being taken away, he said.