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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Vanish In Veil of Darkness

GROZNY -- In November, residents of the Chechen capital received address signs for their homes. The street name and house number were written out in large white letters on a blue background -- easy to read even from a distance.

The last time Grozny saw this kind of spruce-up was at the start of the 1990s when the Soviet-era names of some streets were switched to Chechen ones. So it's no wonder that most people snapped up the signs and even complained to the mayor's office if they didn't get one.

But some residents have been hesitant because of what human rights campaigners say are new tactics used by the Russian military for conducting its special operations in the republic.

In the village of Aldy, on the outskirts of Grozny, only Said Isayev did not hang a shiny new address sign outside his home on Ulitsa Masayeva. When neighbors asked him the reason, he said, "Why? So that it's easier to find me at night?"

After darkness falls, a dim ray from a flashlight will be enough to read the address, he said, "and I don't need unexpected visitors at night."

Human rights advocates say a wave of nighttime abductions is sweeping across Chechnya. Unidentified armed men in masks burst into homes, seize residents and take them off to unknown locations.

About 20 people a week disappear this way, their bodies sometimes surfacing on the outskirts of towns and villages, Usam Baisayev of the human rights organization Memorial said at a Nov. 30 meeting of Chechen nongovernmental organizations in Ingushetia. The Moscow Helsinki Group also said it has gathered considerable evidence on nighttime arrests and murders.

The human rights activists put the blame on federal troops, who have changed strategy since the "Nord Ost" hostage crisis in late October re-energized the Chechnya campaign.

On Nov. 4, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that troop reductions in Chechnya would be suspended and troops would begin conducting tough but targeted special operations to weed out Chechen rebels.

Instead of mopping up entire villages, troops are now checking specific locations in an effort to target only "bandit formations," a spokesman for the federal command, Ilya Shabalkin, said last week.

Shabalkin denied that federal troops were responsible for the disappearance of local residents. He said it was rebels who conduct the nighttime raids, targeting officials in the republic's pro-Moscow administration and local citizens who cooperate with the authorities. Many Chechen officials and police have been killed.

Unlike the mopping-up operations when entire villages are sealed off and swept for fighters, and those who carry out the sweeps can generally be identified, the nighttime detentions are carried out by a handful of men in masks.

"Five to six people in masks and camouflage burst into homes at night and take people away," he said. "Who can you hold responsible?"

The killing a few weeks ago of Alkhan-Kala's former mayor, Malika Umazheva, was typical of the nighttime raids -- she was shot by unidentified masked men who broke into her home after midnight.

Law enforcement officials blamed the rebels, who they said had threatened her for cooperating with the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration. The rebels, however, accused federal troops, saying Umazheva was punished for being too outspoken about abuses by federal forces in Alkhan-Kala.

Baisayev said the nighttime raids were not new, but are now receiving "greater emphasis." At the same time, large-scale military operations have become less severe, he said.

"Lately, when I speak to residents in villages where there has just been a mop-up, they respond that everything is all right," he said.

"By this they mean that no one has been killed. While the pillaging is no less, murders during daytime sweeps virtually no longer happen."

Interior Ministry spokesman Albert Istomin said in an interview posted on the web site Strana.ru that the tactical change announced by Ivanov was a means of increasing efficiency. "The fight with terrorists must be conducted using a targeted approach, an agent network and other work," he said.

His ministry is creating 10 commando units to carry out special operations, Istomin said. "Their main aim is to conduct mop-up operations and fight against terrorism, and not just in Chechnya," he said, adding that two such units will be posted on a permanent basis in the northern Caucasus.

The Chechen police also are creating mobile groups together with federal troops, said Chechnya's acting interior minister, Said-Selim Peshkhodev.

"Our task is to go on the offensive to restore order and protect the citizens of Chechnya," said Peshkhodev, whose men normally participate on an equal footing with the military during sweeps.

"To this end we have organized night patrols in the Zavodskoi, Staropromyslovsky and Lenin districts of Grozny and in the Urus-Martan region of the republic," he said.

Peshkhodev said he had no information about the reported nighttime disappearances.

Yury Ponomaryov, the acting prosecutor of Chechnya, said his office is keeping a close eye on the activities of federal troops.

"When any special operation is conducted in any region, military prosecutors work with the civilian prosecutors of that region; in other words, prosecutors are always present during such operations," he said in an interview in Grozny earlier this month.

"Soldiers do abuse their authority, of course, and other crimes are committed," Ponomaryov said. "In these cases we carry out an initial investigation and send the case to the military prosecutor's office for a decision in Khankala."

The military prosecutor's office in Chechnya said 472 abduction cases have been opened in the past two years.

According to Memorial's data, about 600 people have disappeared in the republic over the past two years.