Refugees target of Russian ire

A sweep of all 'fighting age' Chechen males sparks concerns of new

Datu Isigova is beside herself with worry. A resident of Grozny, besieged capital of breakaway Chechnya, she escaped Wednesday to neighboring Ingushetia.

Her husband, Suleiman, and her 11-year-old son, Arvi, didn't make it. Just yards from the the border, they were pulled from their bus by Russian soldiers implementing a new policy that regards all Chechen males between the ages of 10 and 60 as suspected terrorists.

"I had to leave my son and husband behind," Mrs. Isigova told human rights workers as she disembarked.

The number of Chechens fleeing through the only open escape hatch, here at Sleptsovsk, has swollen to crisis levels in recent days. A new Russian rule that forbids males of "fighting age" from entering or leaving Chechnya is causing an uproar among refugees separated at the border.

The US State Department yesterday asked Russia for clarification of its policy.

"We are deeply concerned by this order, which effectively deprives all males of the right to be refugees," says Peter Bouckaert, a monitor with the independent, New York-based Human Rights Watch. "This is a disturbing new The new rule is apparently a panic reaction to last weekend's stunning offensive by Chechen rebels, which wreaked havoc far behind Russian lines and challenged the military's control of key Chechen population centers.

"The impression from here is that things are getting out of control in the Russian-occupied areas," says Tom Trier, project manager for the Danish Refugee Council, an aid group financed by several Scandinavian governments and the Danish Interchurch Committee. "We are seeing a big increase in the flow of refugees because the front line in Chechnya is breaking up, guerrilla war is flaring up everywhere, people are running away."

Russian commanders have blamed the rebel attacks on lax security in the 80 percent of Chechen territory now under Moscow's control. They have ordered fresh "cleansing operations" to root out hidden fighters, rebel sympathizers, and arms.

As part of the new vigilance, all Chechen males, even teens, traveling on the war-torn republic's roads are to be treated as potential enemies until they prove they are bona fide refugees. Human-rights workers say most male detainees are forced to return to their homes, but there are increasing reports that some men taken at Russian checkpoints are disappearing.

Russian soldiers at the Sleptsovsk crossing point, a grim funnel-like fortification straddling the main highway to the Chechen capital, said Wednesday they were turning back all Chechen males old enough to carry a gun.

"They are taking away all the men, and they disappear," says Malika Mahagova, a former Grozny resident who came through the crossing Wednesday to reunite with her family, which has been in Ingushetia for two months. She had planned to take her children to a refugee camp at Sernovodsk, just inside Chechen territory, where conditions are better than in the bleak and overcrowded camps in Ingushetia.

But she has a son in his twenties. "We do not intend to move because the Russians will take him for sure," she says.

The Russian ministry of emergency situations said 2,500 people crossed from Chechnya Wednesday, way up from the average of about 500 per day in December and January. That brings the total to about 176,000 Chechen refugees staying in Ingushetia, an impoverished republic with a population of just 300,000. In recent weeks, tens of thousands had returned to Chechnya after receiving Russian assurances that it was safe to go home.

"Now the flow is reversing again, and more are coming to Ingushetia," says Mikayel Aleksanyan, a field worker with UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. "All this is linked to the pace of military activity in Chechnya. We are building up contingency stocks of supplies to handle a much bigger problem."

Even Chechens working hand-in-glove with Moscow to bring the wayward republic back under Russian rule are furious. "The Russians are repeating all their mistakes of the last war," says Mohamed Arsanukayev, an official of the Chechen State Council, a pro-Moscow shadow government for the region. "The Russians can take territory, but it's quite a different matter to establish civic order. Imposing a tougher military regime is a huge mistake that will only play into the hands of the rebels."

In the previous 1994-96 conflict, Russia's military occupied almost all of Chechnya, but was unable to stop highly mobile guerrillas from striking almost at will behind Russian lines.

The Russians responded with harsher measures, including infamous "filtration centers," or concentration camps, where the record shows thousands of suspected rebels were detained without notification, beaten, and sometimes tortured.

"We're very worried that these new measures mean the Russians are going down the same road as the last war, and we could soon see this herald the reintroduction of filtration centers," says Mr. Bouckaert. "When you create a regime where any male can be summarily detained, this opens the likelihood of abuse."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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