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Nearly 25,000 civilians died in Grozny, Russian human rights panel reports

MOSCOW — MOSCOW -- Russian human rights workers estimate nearly 25,000 civilians have died during two months of fighting in the Chechen capital of Grozny, far more than the military deaths reported.

The staggering figures were compiled for Russia's human rights commissioner, Sergei A. Kovalyov, who testified yesterday before a parliamentary panel investigating the war in Chechnya.

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"These are very approximate figures," Mr. Kovalyov told the parliamentary commission, which opened hearings Monday. "What is important is that thousands have died."

He said the civilian death toll, extrapolated from figures obtained by questioning refugees, could be 4,000 higher or lower than the 25,000 estimate.

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The Interfax news agency said the document compared the deaths -- 5 percent of Grozny's 500,000 prewar population -- to the per capita death rate in Poland during World War II.

The document said the victims included 3,700 children under the age of 15, 4,650 women over age 15, 2,650 men over 50 and 13,350 unarmed men between the ages of 15 and 50, Interfax reported.

"This is an extreme level of losses," Interfax quoted the report as saying. "It is only comparable to losses Poland sustained during World War II, and, time-wise, it is even considerably higher than that level."

The deaths occurred between Nov. 25, 1994, when clandestine Russian forces were fighting in Chechnya, and Jan. 25, or 46 days after Russian forces openly entered Chechnya on Dec. 11. The Russian government has denied that the figures could be that high.

The war in secessionist Chechnya has bogged down and humiliated the Russian army, and has provoked criticism against President Boris N. Yeltsin among Russians and foreign leaders appalled by the casualties. Mr. Yeltsin is trying to persuade President Clinton to put aside his misgivings over Chechnya and visit Moscow in May.

The Yeltsin government has estimated that 1,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, but morgue workers say that 5,000 soldiers have died.

Chechnya's president, Dzhokhar M. Dudayev, a former Russian air force general, has not released a death toll. But he asserts only one Chechen fighter has died for every 10 Russians.

The report prepared for Mr. Kovalyov estimated 650 Chechen fighters had died.

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Memorial, another human rights group, estimated yesterday that more than 27,000 civilians were killed and about 80,000 wounded throughout Chechnya, which had a prewar population of about 1 million.

One witness, who provided information for Mr. Kovalyov, told The Sun that the shelling of Grozny was heavier than the worst shelling in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which endured months of constant bombardment.

"I counted 40 explosions a minute, 30 times more intense than the worst in Sarajevo," said the witness, who asked not to be identified because that would make it more difficult for him to continue his undercover investigations.

He also brought back a cluster bomb that he said was proof of the indiscriminate nature of the Russian attack. The bomb, which spews metal fragments up to 200 yards, was found by him in Shali, a town of 60,000 near Grozny. The witness said the market and a maternity hospital in Shali were bombed.

Mr. Kovalyov, who spent three weeks in Grozny during heavy fighting, told the commission he had heard two Russian officers discussing the bombardment of an apartment in a radio conversation monitored by the Chechens.

"You jerk, why don't you shoot," Mr. Kovalyov quoted one officer admonishing a tank commander. "I see you very well. There are buildings, apartment blocks. Fire on the second, fourth and fifth floors. Fire. It will be better to see, better for ambushes."

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Mr. Kovalyov, 64, has fought for human rights in Russia since the Soviet era. He was arrested in 1974 for publishing information about human rights abuses, and spent seven years in a labor camp for political prisoners and three more in internal exile.

Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, the defense minister and main prosecutor of the war, has called him a "traitor" and "enemy of Russia."

Yuli Rybakov, a deputy in the state Duma and one of Mr. Kovalyov's group of investigators in Chechnya, has accused the Russian army of hiding dead Russian soldiers so the true cost of the conflict will never be known.

At a news conference, Mr. Rybakov said he had testimony that "bodies of killed Russian servicemen were buried in silos or nTC thrown into the mountains from helicopters."

Other witnesses asserted that Russia has set up concentration camps for able-bodied Chechen men.

"Typically, men are held about a week, during which they are severely beaten," one witness told The Sun. "Then, when they can barely stand, they are let go and told to be out of the vicinity in 40 minutes or they will throw them back in."

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The Chechens, he said, can also buy their way out if they have any money.

The witness, a journalist, did not want his name published. Ever since a Russian newspaper reporter was killed while investigating corruption in the Russian military in the fall, reporters have been reluctant to be identified too closely with their information.


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