Watchdog alleges mass grave in Chechnya

1/07/2008 - 20:20

GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - A human rights watchdog in Russia's Chechnya region on Tuesday demanded an investigation into a suspected mass grave where it said Russian soldiers buried up to 300 civilians they had killed in an attack.

Russian forces fought two wars against separatist rebels inChechnya in which both sides killed and tortured civilians. Inthe past few years the fighting has subsided and local peopleare slowly starting to seek redress for acts of violence.

Chechnya's official human rights ombudsman NurdiNukhazhiyev said a group of residents had told him last weekabout the suspected mass grave, at an asphalt plant about 25 km(16 miles) from the Chechen capital, Grozny.

The ombudsman said it contained the bodies of men, womenand children who were killed on October 30, 1999 when theircolumn of vehicles came under fire from Russian troops.

Russia's defence ministry could not immediately be reachedfor comment. In the past, Russia's military has deniedsystematic abuses during the fighting in Chechnya, but saidinsurgents routinely used civilians as cover.

"All the vehicles (in the convoy) were carrying white flagsmade out of bedsheets, so the troops would not shoot,"Nukhazhiyev said on Tuesday, addressing a conference on missingpersons organised by Chechnya's local government.

He said they were refugees trying to reach another part ofthe region to escape the fighting.

"However, as soon as the column came over the brow of thehill ... the federal forces opened fire," he said.

"After completely destroying the convoy of refugees, thesoldiers buried the corpses together with their vehicles andbelongings in a big pit on the territory of the asphalt plant,which is located near the road."

He said witness accounts suggest between 250 and 300 peoplewere buried at the site. Human rights groups and the mediareported the attack on the convoy at the time.

The ombudsman said the mass grave was discovered 8 monthslater, when a mechanical digger working at the plantaccidentally dug up human remains and items of clothing.Investigators have never exhumed the bodies.

Nukhazhiyev said he wanted the remains at the site to besubjected to forensic tests to establish their identity.

The separatist rebels and Islamist militants who waged twowars against Moscow's rule starting in 1994 have now eitherbeen killed, fled abroad or driven into remote mountainhideouts.

There are still sporadic bombings and firefights, butChechnya is now largely peaceful. It is run by Ramzan Kadyrov,a former rebel who professes loyalty to the Kremlin.

Moscow provides massive subsidies to Chechnya, andinvestigating allegations of war-time abuses by Russian forcesis a sensitive issue for the local authorities.

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