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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Once Again, Coffins Arriving in Rostov

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Southern Russia -- In a repetition of the nightmare of the war in Chechnya three years ago, dead and wounded from the fighting in Dagestan have begun arriving in this southern Russian city.

The arrival of the first coffins - including those of two local airmen - has provoked unease and anger among many, feelings intensified by military orders for secrecy that have confined the wounded to their ward to isolate them from the news media.

Rostov lost 214 young men in the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, according to the local Soldiers' Mothers Committee. As the headquarters for the North Caucasus military district, Rostov is home to a military hospital and to a military morgue, which still holds 270 unidentified bodies of men from all over Russia killed in Chechnya.

Now, Rostov residents have buried their first two hometown victims from the latest conflict - helicopter crewmen burned when their craft was hit by a missile. And there are several dozen wounded soldiers in the military hospital. Transport planes also have brought 17 bodies to be identified.

Two Mi-8 helicopter pilots from a Rostov Interior Ministry aviation unit - pilot Andrei Orlov, 37, and navigator Andrei Anoshchenkov, 30, - were buried Wednesday at the flat, windswept veterans' corner of the Severnoye cemetery on the edge of town.

Their helicopter was hit shortly after it landed in the Botlikh district, where Russian troops are battling Chechen-led Islamic militants. Orlov died the same day in a hospital in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Anoshchenkov died four days later as he was being flown to a hospital in Moscow. Both were married with small children.

Anoshchenkov's weeping mother, Lyubov, said, "He telephoned me from the hospital. He joked and laughed and said in 10 days he will be at home. Where did he find the strength? I have seen him. ... There was no living bit of skin on him. ... What a strong son I have!"

Rostov residents fear there may be worse in store, dreading that the war will drag on and casualties will mount. On Friday, Interfax reported that military sources in Dagestan say it may take until December to oust the militants.

Russian forces conducted two air strikes against rebel units inside Chechnya on Friday, again raising the possibility of a wider war, as well as hitting villages held by the militants in Dagestan, The Associated Press reported.

Russia and Chechnya agreed to a cease-fire in August 1996. Since then, the Chechens have run their own affairs, though no other country has recognized their independence.

Thursday, a special medical division from Rostov left for Dagestan. "What it means is that the number of dead and wounded at the front has reached some critical point, and there are not enough planes and vehicles to evacuate them," said Alexander Titov, editor in chief of the local Rostov television channel Don-RT.

"They are creating additional hospitals in Dagestan," he said.

Worries are fed by the information blockade imposed by the military. Members of the local Soldiers' Mothers Committee, which opposed the use of untrained teenage conscripts in Chechnya, say they fear the same thing is happening now.

The first 19 wounded soldiers, who were shipped by air to Rostov on Tuesday, were "very young and looked very frightened," said Sergei Kisin, military journalist of the Rostov office of Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, who managed to get onto the military airfield to meet the aircraft carrying the wounded.

Kisin, a former paratrooper who fought in Afghanistan, said local television reporters were quickly expelled by the military. The wounded "looked very underweight, surprisingly skinny for fighters in the front. They did not look like experienced soldiers."

"It is one thing to feel pain when you are a professional 30-year-old officer. But it is different when you have just graduated from high school and your leg is gone," Kisin said.

Major Kaverin, spokesman for the North Caucasus military district, refused to say a word about the wounded soldiers. He refused journalists admittance to the military hospital, where the soldiers were placed for treatment, saying, "It is not the right time, and both they and the doctors don't want it."

But Vladimir Vatamanenko, acting hospital chief, when reached by telephone, said he would happily speak if Kaverin allowed it. A patient from the hospital who was asked to bring one of the Dagestan wounded to the gates to talk said they wanted to talk, but they are not allowed to leave their rooms.

The patient said that he talked to the wounded, and several said they had spent as little as three months in the army before they were sent to the front.

Kaverin quoted an order from Viktor Kazantsev - the commander of the North Caucasus military district, whose headquarters is located in Rostov - to block information about the details of the losses of the military in the region. Kazantsev has recently been appointed to head the Dagestan operation but has kept the position in Rostov as well.

Titov said that the military was acting out of fear of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee in Rostov - five women headed by 65-year-old Yelena Zyubrovskaya, whose 19-year-old son died under suspicious circumstances 11 years ago in the Soviet Army. "The soldiers' mothers may start protesting if too much information becomes public, and the military doesn't want that to happen," Titov said.

Zyubrovskaya agreed, "All this - blocking of information and sending young soldiers to the front - is very much as it started in Chechnya."

Her committee started to protest sending youngsters to the war in Chechnya almost immediately when it started. Titov agreed, "This is a replica of how it was in Chechnya."

Zyubrovskaya said that nothing has changed in the regulations that would prevent sending young soldiers to the front just after they take the oath.

Two weeks ago the local Don Division, with its 3,000 men, was sent to Dagestan. Only the sick were left behind.

"We had a speaker at our seminar we conducted for the Rostov regional Soldiers' Mothers Committees recently, and he told us that no one is making any exceptions when divisions are being sent to the front," said Zyubrovskaya. "We were horrified.

"Why did this massacre of young boys start again?" she said. "While we have this hot point, at the border with Chechnya, why don't we keep OMON and Spetsnaz there - elite troops? Why are regular federal troops being sent there?"