MOSCOW -- Russian soldiers taken prisoner by the Chechens and later released are now being told they have to compensate the government for the loss of their Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
The military says the soldiers must pay $693.52 for a weapon, even though a typical draftee makes $2 a month. Refusal to pay, the soldiers have been warned, will result in criminal prosecution.
In response to an inquiry from The Sun, an Interior Ministry spokesman said yesterday the officer who sent out the demand was "overzealous."
Lt. Col. Igor Kovalyov promised that the ministry would "undertake certain measures" to put an end to this practice.
But he could not say how many soldiers already had received such letters. They appear to be going only to Interior Ministry troops.
The Russians have never looked kindly on their own soldiers who have been taken prisoner.
Those who surrendered to the Nazis went straight from German prison camps to Soviet prison camps.
But the Russians rarely have fought a war as unpopular as the war in Chechnya.
The Committee of Soldiers Mothers is trying to gather information about the compensation warnings. But Nayil Salikhovsky, of the Soldiers Mothers Committee, said that even if the released prisoners are not jailed, the demands for compensation should be enough to scare them into silence.
The government, he said, doesn't want former POWs refuting Russian claims of Chechen torture. The government already was embarrassed when several released prisoners said their living conditions and diets were better while under confinement than they had been before their capture.