Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Sweep Through Chechen Towns

Hundreds of protesters in the Chechen town of Argun on Tuesday demanded that federal troops end a security sweep that has brought new accusations of human-rights abuses and led to fierce fighting.

Argun has been under fire since Thursday as federal forces try to flush out rebels, some of whom are believed to have fled another sweep in the nearby village of Tsotsin-Yurt.

In the past week, 187 people were detained, 13 of whom remained under arrest Tuesday, Interfax reported, citing city officials.

Human rights workers are collecting what they describe as mounting evidence that troops committed unjustified killings and other abuses during sweeps of the two towns.

Usam Baisayev, deputy director of the regional office of the human rights group Memorial, said the first military operation began in Tsotsin-Yurt on Dec. 30, just as Russia shut down for the New Year's and Orthodox Christmas holiday.

"The soldiers kept shooting at any Chechen male they saw for four days in a row," Baisayev said from his office in the Ingush city of Nazran, on the border with Chechnya. "They did not even bother to figure out whether the person they were about to deprive of life is or was a member of a rebel gang."

Military officials say the troops are rooting out rebels hiding among the civilian population and have killed more than 100 rebels in the operation. The rebels have reported killing 40 federal troops. The reports are impossible to verify.

Chechnya's chief prosecutor, Vsevolod Chernov, said the people who were detained were suspected of having links to the rebels. "Investigations will determine whether they had anything to do with them," he said. "Once the fighting is over, a team will be dispatched and we shall see who has been killed."

Argun remained sealed off Tuesday, with only military vehicles allowed in and out of the town, but officials said the operation was winding down and troops began pulling out of Argun late Tuesday.

About 300 people took part in a protest earlier in the day urging an end to the sweep, an official in the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration said.

The fighting in Argun and Tsotsin-Yurt, both east of Grozny, has been some of the heaviest seen in Chechnya in recent months. A gun battle broke out Monday when rebels opened fire from buildings on either side of a bridge as a military patrol crossed into Argun, ORT television reported. "The fire was so heavy that the fighting went on for more than four hours," the ORT reporter said from Grozny. "Air support had to be called in. It was only with the help of fire from military helicopters that the rebel site was put out of action and one building was destroyed."

Two soldiers were killed and four wounded, while seven bodies were found in the destroyed house from which rebels had fired on the convoy, the report said.

The rebel web site said the battle broke out after troops fired on a demonstration of women and rounded up about 200 residents.

Information about events in Chechnya is often fragmentary and unverifiable because of poor communication and a lack of impartial observers.

Most Russian news reports are based on official statements from military headquarters; the Chechen rebels' web site routinely exaggerates rebel gains. Information from other Chechen sources often takes days or weeks to trickle out.

Kheda Saratova, an investigator with Memorial, spent three days in Tsotsin-Yurt before leaving Saturday and collected evidence that at least 37 civilians were killed by federal troops. She said that in order to retrieve the bodies, relatives of the victims were forced to sign a statement acknowledging that their loved ones were members of rebel groups. "Troops kill peaceful civilians and then try to pass them off as rebels," she said after reaching Nazran. "The military just grabs anyone who is at hand and then the rest of the world has to trust their 'professionalism' when they say these people were bandits."

Saratova cited the case of 37-year-old Musa Ismailov, a town mullah, who was taken away by soldiers in Tsotsin-Yurt on Dec. 30. As the troops escorted him out the door, his 36-year-old wife, Malika, saw that one of his ears had been cut off and that he was bleeding from the wound. She tried to follow him, but a soldier threatened to shoot her. Later, to retrieve her husband's body, she had to pay 1,000 rubles, or about $33, to federal troops and sign a document saying he had been a rebel fighter.

"This pretty much makes all members of our family fighters automatically," the woman told Saratova, who transcribed the interview. "And now I am afraid ... that my 17-year-old son will take up a gun and will try to avenge his father's death. And I will not be able to stop my son. In fact, most of the people who are fighting against the federals today and whom the federals call bandits are ordinary people who want to avenge their relatives who were unjustly slaughtered by the federal troops."

Saratova said residents reported that many of the soldiers, perhaps because of New Year's revelry, appeared to be drunk during the operations. She also said the troops had burned an unknown number of corpses on the town outskirts.

"The entire town reeks of burned flesh and putrefaction," she said.

Saratova said several residents reported seeing the commander of Russia's troops in Chechnya, Lieutenant General Vladimir Moltenskoi, in Tsotsin-Yurt during the operation. Moltenskoi was also commander during document sweeps in the Chechen villages of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaya in July that were denounced as cruel and wanton even by pro-Kremlin officials in the region.

"Most of the reports coming these days from [Tsotsin-Yurt] sound very true," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies. "Things that would several years ago make one's hair stand on end today sound utterly commonplace.

"Because Russia has turned out to be a very useful and instrumental ally of the U.S. in fighting international terrorism, the West has completely turned a blind eye to what is happening in Chechnya," he continued.

The U.S. ambassador to Russia said Friday that the United States has taken steps to help cut financial and military support to foreign fighters operating in Chechnya, such as Khattab.

But Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, speaking in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, added that the United States remains concerned about the human rights situation and urged Russia to negotiate a peace deal with Chechen separatists. (LAT, AP, Reuters, MT)