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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousands Flee Chechen 'Cleansing'

Large-scale "cleansing" operations by federal troops in two Chechen villages last week sent thousands of frightened civilians fleeing to neighboring Ingushetia and prompted the mayors of the villages to quit, Chechen officials and human rights activists said.

Sulim Makhmudov, deputy head of the Sunzhensky district administration, said Friday in a telephone interview that about 1,500 people were rounded up by federal troops in two villages in the district — Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, both located in western Chechnya about 12 kilometers from the Ingush border.

"Now many, many people are bringing us their complaints," he said, declining to elaborate, saying that an investigation is pending.

Many of the people detained in Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk were beaten and tortured, Lipkhan Bazayeva, an activist with the Memorial human rights group, said Friday by telephone from Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia.

Bazayeva said one of those beaten in Sernovodsk, Salambek Amagov, died Thursday in his home. His liver had failed after he was kicked by soldiers.

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov acknowledged that the operations were going on but said tough measures were necessary to root out rebels from among the civilian population.

"Such operations are conducted, they must be conducted and they are being done in accordance with the legal norms of the counterterrorist operation," Gryzlov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev said Friday that he has asked for the events in Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk to be looked into and the results to be made public, Interfax reported.

Throughout the war, troops have conducted sweeps of Chechen villages and towns, known as zachistki, on the pretext of checking documents and finding rebels. Many men who are detained report being beaten. Some are never seen again.

Click here to read our special report on the Conflict in Chechnya.

Human rights workers say troops have stepped up the zachistki in recent weeks. "The level of arbitrary detentions we are now seeing is unprecedented," Human Rights Watch said in a statement quoting its executive director for Europe and Central Asia, Elizabeth Anderson.

Last week, the troops swept through Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya, two of three places in Chechnya that had been declared safe zones for refugees. Refugees had been settled there in tent camps as part of a government drive to persuade Chechens to leave camps in Ingushetia.

But after last week's zachistki, almost all of the 26,000 refugees left Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya for Ingushetia or were preparing to, Interfax reported.

"The big field between refugee camps in Sleptsovskaya [near Nazran] was covered with people last Thursday," Bazayeva said. "They were complaining to us, many were crying, many needed medical help."

Stanislav Ilyasov, the head of the Chechen government, said it would now be that much harder to persuade people to return to Chechnya. "Such tactics do nothing to restore peaceful life or to bring refugees back," Interfax quoted him as saying. As many as 150,000 Chechens have taken refuge in Ingushetia.

The people who fled the two villages had horror stories to tell when they arrived in Ingushetia.

"They were detaining all the men they could find — from 13 to 60 years old. They even took sick people from their beds," said Ruslan Badalov, who lives in Nazran and heads the Committee of Chechen Refugees. He was quoting a Sernovodsk man whose name was withheld to protect him.

"They collected about 700 people from our village," Badalov quoted the man as saying. "Those who could buy them off were allowed to, and the rates were made clear: boys cost 200 rubles [or $6.86], older people from 500 rubles to 1,000 rubles, depending on whether or not they had local registration. Many were refugees residing in Sernovodsk and were not registered locally.

"Those who had no money were all taken out to a field near the local mosque where tents had been erected. After being asked, 'Does anyone want to go to a press conference?' the men were pushed inside where they were severely beaten, tortured and bitten by dogs," Badalov said.

The cleansing started with looting, the man told Badalov.

"On July 2, armored cars surrounded the village and blocked all routes out. No one could enter or exit it for the whole day while the village was pillaged until nothing was left. The military confiscated everything that they could put in a truck, including carpets, electronic equipment and other valuables. They even took food products."

Bazayeva said the people who fled Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk brought word of a new method for picking out rebels: the living computer.

"People had to parade before someone — presumably a local resident-informer — who, invisible to them, watched them from a special booth.

"One by one, the villagers had to march up and stand facing the booth so that the informer could identify them. The villagers were arrested if the informer said they were a rebel or that they helped rebels."

Bazayeva said 20 people in Assinovskaya were arrested this way and taken to federal police headquarters in Achkhoi-Martan, where they were beaten and tortured.

"Their wives went there and heard them crying out in pain. Almost all of them were later released. Five people are still missing," she said.

Ilyasov said the cleansing operations followed a terrorist attack July 2 near Sernovodsk, in which five federal policemen from Kemerovo were killed, and another attack Tuesday near Assinovskaya, in which a land mine blew up an armored car.

But he added that the terrorists, whose names had been provided to the military by local administrations, had not been detained. The response by the military was "inappropriate," he said.

The military's behavior caused the village mayors — Nazarbek Terkhoyev of Assinovskaya and Vakha Arsamakov of Sernovodsk — to hand in their resignations, said Makhmudov of the district administration.

Khasan Deniyev, deputy head of the Kurchaloi district administration, also resigned last week in protest, Interfax reported. He said 20 people from the villages of Kurchaloi, Mairtup and Oktyabrsky had disappeared after a zachistka conducted at the end of June.

Ilyasov said the incidents in Kurchaloi, Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk had been "studied deeply" at a meeting Thursday in his office attended by the head of federal forces in Chechnya, Vladimir Moltenskoi, and other top commanders.

"I am sure that today [Thursday] will be a turning point, and all the activities of the participants in the anti-terrorist operation will in the future serve only to achieve goals set by the president of Russia, who has called for the establishment of a dictatorship of the law," Ilyasov said.

Ilyasov said he would not accept Terkhoyev's and Arsamakov's resignation letters.

Interfax quoted Ilyasov as saying Friday that a decision was made at Thursday's meeting that in the future, troops will carry out zachistki in the presence of the heads of local administrations, local police and even Moslem clerics.

Bazayeva said she does not believe any such coordination is possible.

"Even now, Ilyasov mentioned only three cleansing operations. But they are taking place nonstop, everywhere," she said.

Aslambek Aslakhanov, the State Duma deputy from Chechnya, said in Grozny last Monday that cleansing operations must be stopped.

"Bandits must be fought, not peaceful civilians. The methods by which the counterterrorist operation is being conducted suggest the war is being waged in order to clear all people from the territory," he said. "That it is not the way to fight rebels."