Russia says it can take care of Chechen refugees; Critics say military makes little effort to target terrorists, spare civilians


MOSCOW -- A line three cars abreast and six miles long stretched back along the road to Nazran yesterday, as thousands more Chechens tried to flee Russian airstrikes entering their sixth day.

More than 30,000 people have been registered as refugees, and in Nazran, the capital of the Russian republic of Ingushetia, officials said the actual number was more like 60,000.

Ingush President Ruslan Aushev said his people were facing a humanitarian catastrophe. But the chief of the federal Ministry of Emergency Situations took a tour there yesterday and said the problem was in hand. Russia, said Sergei Shoigu, would be able to take care of the refugees without help from abroad.

Chaos appeared to pose a greater threat than shortages of supplies.

Three planes carrying food and tents landed in Nazran yesterday, and in Moscow officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross said sufficient amounts of food and medicine had been stockpiled in the North Caucasus, in anticipation of a refugee crisis, to last for a month or more.

But the peculiarity of what has become the world's latest refugee crisis is that Moscow has spent the past month or so demonizing the Chechen people as terrorists and criminals, so they are hardly being greeted warmly as they leave their home territory.

Officially, no Chechen men are allowed to enter Ingushetia, though officials acknowledged that plenty are simply walking in across fields.

Cars are being so thoroughly checked at the border that only a dozen or so entered yesterday.

At the same time, the kinds of international organizations that would normally show up to handle a refugee crisis -- such as the ICRC -- are unable to send foreigners to the North Caucasus because of the ever-present threat posed by Chechen kidnappers, who currently hold between 500 and 800 hostages in Chechnya.

Six ICRC workers were murdered in Chechnya in 1996.

"Managing the kidnapping risk is quite a challenge," Francois Wuarin, head of the ICRC mission in the North Caucasus, said in Moscow yesterday.

Wuarin and the other foreign staffers were evacuated from their base in the city of Nalchik a month ago, and now he must try to direct operations from Moscow, dealing with a local staff of 130 by telephone.

Shoigu, on a televised walking tour of the border area, was mobbed by angry refugees insisting they were there because Russian warplanes were bombing their houses despite the assurances of generals that they were targeting only "bandit formations."

Finally losing his temper, he replied, "Well, catch the bandits and bring them to us. Or, show us where we should bomb."

Some reports said border guards were taunting the refugees, telling them they were getting what they deserved for trying to break free of Russia in the 1994-1996 war.

The Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, said he believed terrorists were trying to cross as refugees into Ingushetia. The secret services, he added, "are controlling the situation."

All of this helps to make Russia's objectives less and less clear.

Is Moscow fighting specific terrorists, or is it fighting Chechnya? Are warplanes firing missiles at criminals or enemies? Are the people stranded on the road to Nazran victims or belligerents?

Sergei Kovalyov, a former human rights adviser to President Boris N. Yeltsin who became a fierce critic of the first Chechen war, returned from Dagestan and gave a news conference yesterday in which he accused the Russian military of making little effort to single out the rebels who first launched the fighting and doing nothing to protect the lives of peaceful citizens.

The airstrikes on oil refineries and residential neighborhoods in the capital, Grozny, he said, "are what I would call anti-Chechen action, not anti-terrorist."

He predicted that Moscow was in the process of provoking all Chechens into taking up arms in a partisan war, one that the Russians could win only through the eventual annihilation of Chechnya.

The flow of refugees, he said, demonstrates one thing: "the irresponsibility of our politicians."

Shoigu said Russian authorities would establish a camp for 3,500 people in the next few days.

Magomed Estoyev, a government adviser in Ingushetia, said the republic expects 100,000 refugees in the near future.

"Many of them come and stay with relatives or friends," he said. "Others sit outside houses waiting to be invited in.

"The rest stay at schools, railroad stations, hotels, movie theaters, dormitories. A tent camp is growing at the border.

"We will not close the border; that would be inhuman. Are they to blame for what is happening?"

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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