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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civilians Accuse Soldiers of Atrocities

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Southern Russia -- A bullet wound in her side, Lena Goncharuk crouched behind a half-open garage door, hoping the Russian soldiers who had just gunned down five of her neighbors in the Chechen capital would not find and kill her too.

"Natasha was already lying dead, Kasum was in convulsions, dying," she said over the weekend as she lay in a hospital bed in Nazran in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya.

"They shouted, 'Shoot that woman,' pointing at Lyuda.

"They did not see me behind the gate. I could hardly keep myself from falling down - my legs had four wounds, and a bullet had hit my rib. Blood was pouring out of my mouth. But I held my breath and was only hoping they would not check behind the door for me."

Eyewitnesses like Goncharuk said Russian troops went on rampages in the Staropromyslovsky district of Grozny, looting apartments and killing civilians, including old people and women.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said it has discovered eight incidents in which 22 civilians were killed between Dec. 22 and Jan. 21, and is investigating another 14 deaths in the same region.

"Most of the people killed were women and old men, shot at close range by Russian soldiers," said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. "Some of our worst fears about what could happen in Grozny are being confirmed."

The rights group, which reported similar killings in the village of Alkhan-Yurt in December, expressed concern that the Russian military had done little to prevent its troops from attacking and robbing civilians. "By allowing these types of abuses to take place, the Russian high command ultimately must bear the responsibility for these inexcusable crimes," Bouckaert said.

Russian military officials have denied their forces target civilians and have said they have done everything they can to keep down the number of civilian deaths.

Staropromyslovsky district extends like a finger northwest from the city. It was the scene of heavy fighting during the Russian push into Grozny, launched Dec. 25.

The attack narrated by Goncharuk took place Jan. 19, she said. It happened on Neftyanaya Ulitsa, in a garage where she and a group of neighbors had taken shelter in the cellar.

For weeks, the shelling and bombing had been so intense that people were afraid to leave the cellar. Then the Russian troops arrived.

"We were sitting there and suddenly we heard machine guns shooting into the door," Goncharuk said. On man was wounded. "We rushed down to the cellar. They opened the doors and started to shoot inside, swearing in Russian. I was wounded in both legs. The men told us - 'shout in Russian,' and we did," she said.

The soldiers then told them to come out. "We saw huge men in Russian uniforms, the Interior [Ministry] troops," Goncharuk said. "One had a grenade in his hand ready to throw. He shouted 'What should I do with it, the pin is out!' Another one told him, 'Throw it in the next courtyard,' and he did.

"They would not even check our passports," Goncharuk said. "One asked if rebels were there. Our two men asked them for a cigarette and they gave them one. Then the Russians asked for a radio and Kasum, 40, gave it to them. They told us to go back to the cellar and not to leave it until night. We all went down.

"Immediately, they started throwing grenades into the cellar. I think they contained tear gas - we could not breathe, the gas smelled very bad. I heard three explosions and then I lost consciousness, I struck my head against the wall. Everyone was injured, and we again started to shout, 'What are you doing?'

"They said to get out. I was the last. Natasha Chernova and Lyuda were the first. I heard them shouting, 'What are you doing?' and then everything was finished. I watched in horror from behind the half of the door that protected me - they did not see me - how they finished off Lyuda and Kasum, shot them in the head.

"I was covered in blood - my own and theirs. They did not count the bodies. They thought everyone was dead.

"I spent the whole night in the cellar. I was afraid they would come back," Goncharuk said. The Khasiyevs, a neighboring family, then came and told her, "Get out. You are a witness."

Other neighbors came for their dead, and took Goncharuk with them to Nazran.

In another incident, Human Rights Watch said three women were shot by Russian soldiers Jan. 21. Kheida Makhayuri said she and two companions were blindfolded and taken to the yard of a ruined house. There, they were un-blindfolded and shot. One woman had time to say, "Don't shoot, we have children."

Two women died immediately. Makhayuri was wounded in the shoulder and played dead while the soldiers tore off her earrings and ring, then threw mattresses on top of the women and set them afire. But the mattresses were wet and did not burn well. She waited until the soldiers left, then fled.

Satsita Nayeva, 30, who fled Grozny on Jan. 12, said in an interview with The Moscow Times, "We were living in the cellar of a five-story apartment block in Staropromyslovsky district, where my apartment was. We all knew each other.

"On Jan. 7, Interior troops told us to come out. They then killed seven men. Later they killed three men and two women who were also staying in our cellar. Their corpses lay unburied for a long time, we were afraid to come out to bury them," Nayeva said.

Another resident of the Staropromyslovsky district, Raisa Mukusheva, 35, said, "Interior troops are arresting every single man there - whether he is young or old. They take them from cellars and arrest them. They never were part of the fighting.

"My neighbors who were arrested there in January, they were sitting there in cellars all the time, I know them. And then they take everything from their homes and set fire to those homes.

"My house was burned before that, six weeks ago, during an airstrike, so I lost everything before that. But many of my neighbors were robbed," Mukusheva said in an interview with The Moscow Times.

Mukusheva said that Shepyan Shaigeriyev, 62, asked soldiers not to take things from his neighbor, an old woman, on Kirovogradskaya Ulitsa.

"The next day they came and shot him dead. We buried him in the courtyard of school 49. There is nowhere else to bury people now," she said.

"We just get back to our homes, don't say anything and don't even look in the direction where they are looting, pretending we don't see. We are afraid to be witnesses."