PETROPAVLOVSKAYA, RUSSIA — IT was 8 o'clock in the morning, time to feed the cattle, when Russian soldiers descended on this quiet farming village, dragged five men from the first houses they came to, marched then to the bank of the Sunzha River, and shot four of them dead.
''I saw four men standing with their backs to the river, with their hands on their head,'' said Shamsuddin Baisugurov, a retired Chechen police major who lives in the village. ''The soldiers beat them to their knees with their rifle butts and then shot them from a few meters. As they rolled down the bank, they sprayed them with more gunfire.''
The soldiers then swept through the village on a shooting spree as they searched for weapons, looting empty houses and burning some of them, according to eyewitnesses.
As Russian forces assert their control in the Chechen capital Grozny and in northern Chechnya, residents say they are being subjected to a reign of terror in which soldiers have killed civilians, stolen from houses, and beaten and killed detainees. Two months after the war began, such reports reveal a side of Russia that belies its claims to the West that it honors human rights.
Among the Russians' harshest critics are their Chechen allies, opponents of rebel Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, who are forming a Moscow-backed government.
''There are problems that cannot be explained or forgiven,'' said Abdullah Burgayev, deputy foreign minister in the Chechen Government of National Revival that Moscow has established. ''I mean looting and summary executions. We must put a stop to this situation that is out of control.''
'We never expected this'
Some Russian civilians living in Chechnya are also outraged. ''I am ashamed of the Army,'' said Andrei Gerasimyuk, a Russian resident of Grozny who stayed in his home throughout the fighting.
''I am against Dudayev, but I am also against what the Russian Army is doing to my city,'' he said.
''We had been waiting for the Russians for three and a half years [since General Dudayev seized power] but we never expected them to come like this,'' he adds.
Dudayev unilaterally proclaimed Chechnya independent in 1991. Moscow had long since backed troops that opposed the former Soviet general, but until late last year had denied sending troops to the region.
After several Russian soldiers were captured in the Chechen capital of Grozny, however, Yeltsin finally gave the separtists an ultimatum to disarm, sending tens of thousands of troops on Dec. 11 to restore control in the oil-rich republic.
Russian officials do not deny that their troops have committed crimes of war, but they resent their Chechen allies' complaints.
''Atrocities happen in any war,'' said one senior military officer involved in the Chechnya campaign. ''But instead of keeping them in perspective as a fact of war, and working with us to minimize them, the Chechens are just making loud noises.''
Asked to comment on reported maltreatment of civilians, Yuri Zhaboyev, the Russian deputy procurator in the regional office responsible for investigating criminal charges against soldiers, said he had been forbidden to talk to journalists and referred all inquiries to his superior in Moscow.
The most widespread charges of brutality concern Grozny, where the bulk of the fighting has occurred in the two-month old war to subdue the breakaway republic.
Around Jan. 14, for example, outside a department store on Pervomaiskaya (First of May) Street in central Grozny, Mr. Gerasimyuk, a lawyer with a local bank, said he saw a neighbor talking to four Russian soldiers.
''He had a small pet dog inside his jacket,'' Gerasimyuk recalled. ''He put his right hand into his jacket to calm it, and they shot him in the chest and killed him.
''The Russian troops were mad with fear,'' Gerasimyuk said. ''That is why these things happen.''
That fear appears to stem from a classic problem that soldiers from other countries have faced in other wars.
''Everyone is fighting against us, from kids to old people,'' complained Sgt. Sergei Bokhanov, a marine who took part in some of the heaviest fighting in Grozny.
''You can never tell peaceful civilians apart from fighters,'' he said. ''In the daytime a man is a civilian, and in the night he will shoot you.''
Revenge also appears to have motivated some of the apparently unprovoked killings. Stories abound among Russian soldiers of atrocities committed by Chechen fighters against their captured comrades, and they have engendered deep bitterness.
Sergei Koravlyov, a 19-year-old Russian medic who treated wounded men from the Maikop Brigade, which was nearly wiped out during the abortive Russian assault on Grozny on New Year's Eve, said he has seen Russian soldiers who had been castrated and otherwise severely mutilated.
''I heard Russian officers say that for every one of their men killed they will kill 10 mujahideen,'' said Gerasimyuk. ''But instead they killed civilians.''
Veslan Khamidov, a young man who spent a month in Russian prisons after being caught in cross-fire in Grozny, said a fellow prisoner had told him he had seen a Russian soldier shoot five detainees in the military garrison town of Mozdok, North Ossetia.
''With each shot, he would say: 'This is for Ivan, this for Sergei,' '' apparently referring to dead comrades,'' Mr. Khamidov recounted.
But the background to the execution of the four men in Petropavlovskaya is less clear.
Residents said that Chechen fighters had used the village -- a muddy farming community of modest square brick homes, seven miles north of Grozny -- to launch an ambush on a Russian military convoy on Dec. 20, soon after the war began.
That attack, they said, provoked bombing and artillery raids in the days immediately following that destroyed around 100 houses. But the village had been quiet for some time before Feb. 4.
A quiet day shattered
That morning, at 8 o'clock, about 300 men who identified themselves as members of the OMON police special forces team, surrounded the village, witnesses said.
''I was on my way to feed the cows when I saw three men taking a younger guy from four houses on Klimenko street, and one from a house on the corner of Shkolnaya Street'' on the edge of the village, recalled Shahid Yunushov, who lives nearby. ''They didn't take specific people that they were looking for, just the first gunmen they found.''
''They told everyone else to stay indoors,'' said Abdul Kassid Batimerzayev, father of one of the dead men.
''When my wife tried to talk to them, they told her to get inside or they would burn our house,'' he said. Then she heard bursts of gunfire from the river bank, about 100 yards behind his home.
Major Baisugurov, who says he saw the execution from his home 400 yards downriver, remembers about 15 to 20 men doing the shooting, while another soldier filmed the incident on a video camera.
''Why did they film it?'' he asked, his voice breaking with emotion. ''What did they need to do that for?''
Somehow one of the five detained men, a visitor from the town of Videno, 40 miles away, with the last name of Dimikhaev, escaped, villagers said. Bialy Hushalayev (a father of seven), Aslambek Batimerzayev, Ibragim Masiyev, and Supian Dimikhaev lay dead by the river.
After the shooting, the soldiers hunted for the escaped man, burning Mr. Yunushov's haystack in the search, and then joining the rest of the unit for a house-to-house search of the village.
''They checked practically every house, and in homes where nobody was in, they stole wallets and all valuables they found,'' says Baisugurov. ''They burned three or four houses, and they shot out the tires and radiators of cars that they saw.'' At about two o' clock in the afternoon, the soldiers left.
''My son was the sort of boy who would turn away even if someone was cutting a chicken's throat,'' the father of Aslambek Batimerzayev said, as his wife, drawing water from the farmyard well, sobbed silently.
''He was my only help to care for the cattle.''
Not an isolated case
This was not the only incident of its kind, according to Chechen officials of the Moscow-backed Government of National Revival. Similar atrocities are seriously undermining the pro-Moscow force's credibility, they fear.
''People fear all kinds of frustration, disappointment and discouragement, and this slows the process of normalization,'' the Provisional Government's Deputy Foreign Minister Burgayev acknowledged.
One of his colleagues was more blunt. ''Now people are afraid to let the Russians into their villages,'' says the Government of National Revival's information minister, Lecha Saligov.
''A new public opinion is being created in which the opposition to Dudayev is becoming the enemy of the nation,'' he added. ''Because the looting and killing that the Russian soldiers are doing is worse than what Dudayev ever did.''