Hamed Hasuyev thought he could trust the Russians.
When Russian troops entered his hometown of Alkhan-Yurt in Chechnya two weeks ago, the 60-year-old retired policeman chose to remain. He believed the commanders who told town elders that civilians who stayed had nothing to fear, because separatist guerrillas had fled.
But Russian soldiers went on a rampage of looting and burning during the first three days of December. They burst through the metal gate of Hasuyev's courtyard house on Tolstoy Street on Dec. 3 and began carting off his belongings.
Hasuyev resisted, according to a neighbor who discovered the remains. He was stabbed with a knife and shot 19 times. Soldiers dragged his body into a garage, doused it with fuel and set him and his house afire.
Hasuyev was among six people killed while trying to defend their homes in Alkhan-Yurt, according to witnesses and residents interviewed after they fled. The violence in the town southwest of the Chechen capital of Grozny is one of the worst cases reported so far of Russian troops shooting Chechen civilians and looting their towns.
Criticism of Russian tactics has focused mostly on the pounding of towns and villages by artillery and bombs in the nearly four-month offensive to regain control of the separatist region in the Caucasus. In Alkhan-Yurt, the looting and shootings came after 24 civilians were killed as the Russians fired artillery on the city in advance of the ground assault, according to the witnesses.
The international group Human Rights Watch has detailed looting in the Chechen towns of Sernovodsk, Ermolivski and Assinovskaya, and in the Naur District north of the Terek River. Refugees crossing recently from Chechnya into the neighboring Russian region of Ingushetia said robbery has continued. But the killings added to the suffering in Alkhan-Yurt.
The account of the violence there was based on interviews with 15 refugees conducted in camps and at private homes in Ingushetia, and at the border of Ingushetia and Chechnya. Confirmation would require a visit to Alkhan-Yurt, but the Russian army denied access to reporters trying to travel there today.
Russia has denied all reports of abuses against civilians, including strikes on civilian targets by its artillery and air force.
The Russian bombardment is aimed at reducing Russian infantry casualties by prompting civilians to pressure guerrillas to leave residential areas. By most accounts, Chechen military casualties from the shelling and bombing have been light. Chechen officials assert that thousands of civilians have been killed or wounded, however.
It is difficult to gather information about reports of abuses by the Russian military. There are no observers from the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Only the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch carries out systematic inquiries into Russian as well as Chechen wartime practices.
There have been numerous reports, however, of looting and financial shakedowns of residents trying to flee, according to journalists and human rights activists who have interviewed refugees in Ingushetia.
"On the way here, I saw Kamaz trucks with soldiers and loaded with rugs and refrigerators and furniture," said Mayika Matuyev, a history teacher from Alkhan-Yurt, who arrived in Ingushetia on Sunday. "Soldiers were driving tractors pulling loads of things. It was like a shopping trip."
Alkhan-Yurt, with a pre-war population of 9,000, was a relatively prosperous town, with connections to Chechen business people in Moscow. Those killed there while trying to stop looting, in addition to Hasuyev, were identified by refugees as Hampash Dudayev, Hamed Dudayev, Ibrahim Khankurkhanov, Adlan Jibetayev and Musa Gelkayev.
The killing and looting followed unusually difficult combat for the Russians as they tried to conquer Alkhan-Yurt. Many towns in Chechnya have been able to persuade defenders to leave and open the way to Russians after a period of shelling and air strikes. In Alkhan-Yurt, rebels remained in town for weeks against the will of the population.
Intense bombing began in the second half of November, with almost daily hits on the town. Lecha Olmurhazhiyev, whose father, mother and brother died under a rocket barrage, described the horror. He said that on Nov. 8, his father was sharpening knives and his brother was cutting wood near a shed.
"A rocket crashed into the yard. I heard my sister, who was also inside, screaming. I ran to the yard. Father, mother and my brother were all lying on the ground, injured. My father was hit in the head, my mother lost two fingers and had shrapnel wounds. At first, I didn't think my brother was hurt. Then I saw he was hit in the back," he said.
Amid the panic--neighbors were also injured--Olmurhazhiyev drove the injured to Urus-Martan hospital, seven miles south.
"My father's head was on my shoulder. Soon, I realized he was dead already. I asked my neighbor in the back seat about my brother. He said he was all right. Then I heard my neighbor crying. I realized he was dead, too," he said. His mother died at the hospital later.
Elders, including the town imam, or Muslim religious leader, Waha Muradov, tried to persuade 50 rebels defending the city to leave. The rebels, who had hidden in woods at the edge of the town, were Islamic militants from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Central Asia and from Asian countries, the cleric said. "They didn't have our interests at heart. They just told us they would never retreat from the Russian soldiers," Muradov said sadly.
On Nov. 28, the Russians poured artillery onto Alkhan-Yurt. Town elders met with Russian commander Gen. Victor Shamanov who told them to persuade the guerrillas to leave the area and the shelling would stop. The guerrillas still refused, and remained in their trenches.
Two days later, the rebels finally withdrew, after heavy fighting on the town outskirts, and the Russians entered Alkhan-Yurt. With the town pacified, many residents fled.
Hampash Dudayev, a retired gas station attendant, decided to stay and protect his belongings. According to a man who hid with Dudayev in his basement, Russian troops battered down the gate to his courtyard with an armored personnel carrier and began looting. They also threw two hand grenades into the basement, but both men survived with slight wounds.
Dudayev called out to the soldiers, "I am an old man. Stop this," according to the witness, who was playing dead. But the soldiers opened fire, killing Dudayev. They then cut the hose from a gas canister, lit a flame and set his body on fire. The killers thought the other man was dead, too. He fled and told his story, but would not let his name be published.
One refugee, a village elder, arrived Monday in Ingushetia and said looting took place as late as Sunday. He said his home and two of his neighbors' were looted while he hid in nearby woods. "There were maybe 15 soldiers taking televisions, videos, furniture. It was difficult to count when angry. I realized I would have nothing left," he said.
"The Russians said there would be peace when they came in, and now there is no peace. They're taking everything they can grab," said Fatima Ayubov, who fled last week.
Violence continued to plague Alkhan-Yurt after the initial spurt, Muradov said. He said his son, Issa, was fatally shot in the face and stomach on Dec. 8. "He had gone to the veranda. I was in the basement. Soldiers came and shot him in the left eye. We washed his body later, in the Muslim tradition, and saw lots of bullet holes in his stomach," Muradov recalled. "They didn't let us bury him for five days. All I could do was say a silent prayer to myself."
CAPTION: Russian forces enter a house in the Chechen village of Alkhan-Yurt, where residents said six people died defending their homes.