New evidence of atrocities by Russian troops against civilians in Chechnya has angered Russia's battlefield commanders and created possible conflict with civilian leaders charged with politically pacifying the breakaway region.
Videotapes broadcast on Russian television today showed an armored personnel carrier piled high with stolen videocassette recorders, carpets, photo albums and jars of tomato preserves in Alkhan-Yurt, a town just southwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital. In addition, refugees from Alkhan-Yurt complained that, after Russian forces occupied the city Dec. 1, troops went on a looting rampage and killed civilians who tried to stand in their way.
New York-based Human Rights Watch puts the death toll as high as 22 people. Accounts tell of summary executions, burning of bodies and one beheading. But for the past week, Russian officials have denied that killings or lootings occurred in Alkhan-Yurt.
The charges are filled with dark irony. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has presented Russia's invasion of Chechnya as a crusade to free the area from the control of "bandits and terrorists" and restore law and order.
Malik Saidullayev, a Chechen businessman who is loyal to Moscow, said 41 people died in the rampage. "They don't let anybody in or out of our village," he said during a broadcast on the independent NTV network. "People who are trying to leave . . . are being executed. During the night, drunken soldiers are entering houses, shooting people, taking their property and burning the houses. They demand vodka, and if they don't receive it, they shoot the owner."
The Alkhan-Yurt videos were shot during a visit by Nikolai Koshman, the Kremlin's representative to Chechnya, and Saidullayev, a native of Alkhan-Yurt and a member of a Chechen parliament recognized by Moscow.
At one point in the video, Koshman arrives and demands to see a soldier's identification card. The soldier refuses, and a general standing nearby identifies Koshman and chides the soldier. In an unedited version of the tape not broadcast by NTV, Koshman says: "You'll be held personally responsible for this. I've never seen anything like it anywhere in Chechnya."
Questions about Alkhan-Yurt today infuriated Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, the western front commander in charge of the soldiers who invaded the town. "If someone wants, let them come conduct an investigation," he said.
"But I will put it this way: Don't dare touch officers and soldiers of the Russian army," Shamanov added. "They are undertaking a holy cause today. They are defending Russia. Don't dare sully the Russian soldier with your dirty hands."
In Shamanov's version of the violence in Alkhan-Yurt, his soldiers were trapped in fierce fighting. However, he said the encounter occurred on Dec. 21, long after reports of atrocities surfaced.
Shamanov has fiercely resisted civilian interference in the conduct of the war and once threatened to resign if the government held talks with Chechen rebels. Afterward, he was awarded the Hero of Russia medal.