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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kadyrov Demands Troops Be Punished

The backlash against the military's latest "cleansing" operations in Chechnya gathered force Monday when the Moscow-backed head of the Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, accused troops of "criminal actions" and demanded they be punished.

Later Monday, the chief military prosecutor ordered an investigation into the operations last week in the western Chechen villages of Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk, where troops rounded up hundreds of Chechen men and boys, ostensibly in a search for rebels.

"Peaceful civilians were physically abused, humiliated and robbed," Kadyrov told reporters in Grozny on Monday. But no rebels were detained and no weapons or explosives found, he said.

Kadyrov also accused the soldiers of stealing money from hospitals and schools.

Such sweeps, known as zachistki, have been conducted throughout the war, but they have intensified in recent weeks and the zachistki in Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk were unusually harsh. Thousands of frightened people fled across the border to neighboring Ingushetia. The mayors of the two villages quit in protest, although both are being asked to stay on.

The Memorial human rights group said that many men who were detained were tortured by electric current and bitten by dogs. They had the money taken from their pockets and their jewelry and watches stolen.

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Sernovodsk Mayor Vakha Arsamakov and Khizir Vitayev, the head of the Sunzhensky district where both villages are located, were locked in their offices and not allowed out for 10 hours, Memorial said in a statement issued Saturday in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia.

"All local police and traffic police officers were detained and disarmed. Arsamakov's sons — 14 years old and 18 years old — were detained and beaten, and so was the son of the head of the Sernovodsk police department Vakha Susurkayev," the statement said.

Memorial said Sernovodsk was looted by the soldiers, who confiscated diesel engines, water pumps, construction materials, tools and electronic equipment, and demanded payoffs not to take villagers' cars.

Kadyrov said in remarks reported by Interfax that federal troops threw hand grenades into every school classroom and into school basements. From the school in Assinovskaya, they also stole 60,000 rubles, or more than $2,000, intended for paying teachers' wages.

In Kurchaloi, about 20 kilometers southeast of Grozny, 11 men remain hospitalized after being beaten by soldiers and eight are missing after a zachistka last month, Kadyrov said.

"Investigation of the events has not been properly organized," he was quoted as saying. "Otherwise, how can it be explained that no one has been held responsible?

"If no measures are taken in Chechnya, I will go to the president of Russia and inform him in detail about how the counterterrorist operation is being conducted, that it is now aimed against the peaceful population rather than against the rebels," Kadyrov said.

Those who fled Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk included most of the 26,000 refugees who had been promised safety in these two villages if they returned to Chechnya.

Kadyrov said efforts to bring stability to Chechnya and encourage refugees to return were "nullified by these ill-conceived and criminal actions."

Kadyrov said he already has informed presidential Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin about what happened in Assinovskaya, Sernovodsk and Kurchaloi.

The director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, Diederik Lohman, said Monday in an interview that the latest zachistki reflect the military's frustration with not being able to bring the war to an end.

"The situation is not normalizing. More civilians are being killed than ever before. There are enormous numbers of murders that are just unacknowledged. No one knows who commits them, and even whether they are criminal or political, and if they are political, which side killed them.

"We see even a new kind of zachistka being used that is even more frightening for the local population than it was before," Lohman said.

He praised Kadyrov — who has rarely spoken out against abuses committed by federal troops, and never so harshly — for demanding that those responsible be punished.

"There is only one way to bring down the number of abuses by the Russian forces and to return some trust from the local population — by vigorously investigating and prosecuting the soldiers who committed the abuses," Lohman said.

One of the ways to make troops more accountable, he said, is to increase coverage of their actions on ORT and RTR television, which are seen in Chechnya but do limited reporting on the war.

"Soldiers watch TV there, they know what is going on. As soon as they realize that you can't just kill someone if you feel like it because you can end up spending years and years behind bars, they would become more careful," Lohman said.

"Now there is no reason to be careful because the tortures and the murders are being covered up."

After Kadyrov spoke, Interfax reported that chief military prosecutor Mikhail Kislitsin ordered prosecutors to look into the zachistki.

Viktor Kazantsev, presidential representative in the Southern Federal District, said he would personally oversee the investigation and anyone found guilty would be punished, Interfax reported. "The militants and the authorities are equally to blame for the instability in Chechnya," he said at a news conference in Rostov-on-Don. "The actions of one silly commander make the efforts of the Russian government fruitless."

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov last week defended the troops' actions as "tough but necessary" and said they were carried out "in accordance with the law" on fighting terrorists.