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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soldiers Accused Of New Massacre

NAZRAN, Ingushetia -- Refugees trickling out of Chechnya into the makeshift camps that pock the Caucasus foothills near Nazran are bringing stories of what could be one of the worst civilian massacres in the Chechen war.

They charge that kontraktniki - Russian men hired by the army to fight in Chechnya - staged a drunken rampage of looting and gunfire through the tiny, bombed-out, straw-brick homes of a neighborhood in the Chechen capital called Aldi. They say the mercenaries executed women and elderly men and burned houses and animal pens to the ground.

By the time the Russians left, carting away furniture, jewelry and money on loaded-down armored personnel carriers, dozens if not scores of residents had perished, they say.

The survivors also describe the death of Zina Labazaneva and how a 40-something woman she never met, named Sapiyat, helped give her peace in death, because that first Saturday in February there was no relative to wash Labazaneva, wrap her in a white shroud and lay her in her grave.

A half-dozen witnesses of what happened in Aldi that day - though not Sapiyat - have been interviewed by the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. The organization says it has a list of 62 names of Aldi residents who are thought to have been killed in the massacre.

Researcher Malcolm Hawkes said Tuesday that Human Rights Watch has "absolutely concrete" information on 25 summary executions, but believes there may have been as many as 82, the number given by many survivors.

"And after all this is finished, and we are out, we know that 115 were killed," Sapiyat, a tall, hollow-eyed woman in a long dress and owlish glasses, said between sobs Monday.

Hawkes said there were also two incidents of rape during the soldiers' stay in the Grozny neighborhood, from Feb. 5 to Feb. 9.

There is no way yet to verify any of these figures, much less the circumstances of the deaths. The Russian government has denied that its troops have engaged in atrocities and has called such reports malicious propaganda.

Human Rights Watch previously documented massacres in the village of Alkhan-Yurt, where some 40 villagers were allegedly killed by Russian troops in early December, and a monthlong rampage in Grozny's Staropromyslovsky neighborhood, in which the organization reported 41 dead.

"At the time as we were reading [official] denials about Staropromyslovsky, in fact the worst massacre to date was in progress," Hawkes said, adding that what is striking is the short time span in which the killing spree took place.

In a long interview in one of Nazran's many refugee huddles, where she arrived not long ago, Sapiyat said she is alive today because of where she lived - on Almaznaya Ulitsa, the very last in a warren of curving, interlocking lanes that make up the Aldi neighborhood.

In the last days of January, Russian troops pressing their final assault on Grozny began bombarding Aldi almost around the clock with artillery and airstrikes. The Islamic guerrillas who controlled the area left on Jan. 29, but the bombing continued for three more days, she said.

"And then, suddenly, it became calm," Sapiyat said. "And the troops started mopping up. We thought they would just check everyone's passports. But it was a cleansing of everything alive. They killed cattle, dogs, people - children and old people."

It was Saturday, Feb. 5. Sapiyat said she did not witness what occurred, because she was hiding in her two-room house, listening to the shouts and gunfire outside, watching the flames and smoke of homes burning nearby.

But survivors and other witnesses who gathered afterward told the story: A convoy of soldiers, in tanks and armored personnel carriers, began moving up and down the streets of Aldi, tossing grenades in cellars where families were hiding, forcing residents onto the streets.

At various stops, they demanded money, gold and other valuables. Those who resisted were shot. Sometimes those who gave were shot as well.

One survivor interviewed by Human Rights Watch - a woman too frightened to be publicly named - said 75-year-old Akhmed Abulkhonov rushed from his home to volunteer 300 rubles in tribute. The soldiers threw it in his face, the witness said. He ran into his house and returned with $100.

"You have dollars and you only wanted to give us rubles," the survivor quoted one soldier as saying. By her account, they beat Abulkhonov and shot him, set his cattle shed afire, then roped his hysterical daughter, Lucia, to a personnel carrier and drove off.

Zina Labazaneva, single and in her early 50s, lived with her brother, Husein. Exactly what befell them is unclear. Sapiyat, who lived several streets away, knows only this much:

"We went out and were standing with our passports outside," she said. "I saw a soldier come; he wasn't a regular, but a kontraktnik. And then a whole herd came. The soldier shot his gun around the street"- she made a side to side motion - "and said, 'Everyone go into your houses.'"

The soldiers, she said, were very drunk. "They didn't come into the houses on the last street. They were probably tired of looting and killing."

In the midafternoon silence, as survivors collected to exchange rumors, a woman approached Sapiyat and begged her to come with her. Her neighbors were dead, she said, and she needed help in washing a woman's body for burial.

"And so I went ... and I saw corpses outside," she said. "There was a man whose brains could be seen. There were a brother and sister killed, and he was an invalid. It was definitely gunfire. The bullets had gone through them."

And inside the little brick house where the neighbor took them lay Labazaneva and her brother. Two rows of automatic rifle bullets marched across the woman's body, one at her chest, another at the abdomen.

They undressed the dead woman, bathed her and wrapped her in a white cloth from the neighbor's house.Then, Sapiyat said, Labazaneva and her brother were buried in their front yard, side by side with Abulkhonov and another man.

In the days that followed, she said, Russian military commanders rounded up the men in the area, gave them their confiscated passports and told them to forget that they had ever seen each other.

A week later, Sapiyat left Grozny for good. "I couldn't bear it anymore. I had to leave for my children and myself."

Peter Bouckaert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the organization has not yet published its investigation of the Aldi events or notified the Russian government of its findings.

Bouckaert indicated that he is likely to be busy for some time to come.

'People are returning to their homes to find their relatives shot to death all over the city," he said.

"What happened in the last two weeks are the most severe abuses we've seen in the war. It's as if a sledgehammer was slammed into Grozny after soldiers took the place."