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Chechnya is Europe's worst rights crisis: Human Rights Watch
January 14, 2003

Citing arbitrary detentions, disappearing civilians, sexual abuse at the hands of troops and refugee camp closures, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday described Russia's war in Chechnya as Europe's most intense human rights crisis.

It also harshly criticized NATO for forging closer ties with Moscow, accusing the military alliance and other international groups of turning a blind eye to what it called "continuing atrocities" committed by Russia in the breakaway republic.

"Federal forces continued to brutalize civilians in the ongoing armed conflict in Chechnya," the US-based human rights body said in its annual report for 2002. Any positive steps at reform in Russia were "entirely eclipsed by continued atrocities committed in Chechnya, which remained the region's most intense human rights crisis," it said.

The group said several women had come forward with reports of sexual violence during military operations, and also gave examples of civilians who unexplainably disappeared after being detained by Russian troops.

It criticized the Russian military for its so-called clean-up operations in Chechnya, in which troops round up groups of civilians in an attempt to weed out separatist rebels.

"During these operations, Russian troops detained numerous men, often arbitrarily, and looted civilian homes," the report said. "Detainees routinely faced ill-treatment and torture, and many subsequently 'disappeared.'"

An estimated 80,000 Russian troops currently serve in Chechnya, where Moscow has been fighting to put down a separatist insurgency since October 1999.

The report singled out the clean-up operation in the Chechen village of Stariye Atagy in March last year, during which it said federal troops in unmarked cars drove off with dozens of men, 10 of whom later "disappeared".

Villagers later found seven burned bodies, but investigators failed to identify them and the 10 men have not been seen since, it said.

Human Rights Watch also criticized separatist rebels for their attacks against Russian interests and accused them of "failing to respect the laws of war" when a Chechen team took hundreds of Moscow theatre-goers hostage in October.

But it also slammed Russia's involvement in the deaths of some 129 of the hostages, saying that "the government's failure to provide victims adequate medical treatment raised questions about whether it had met its obligation to minimize the loss of civilian life."

President Vladimir Putin's decision to pump a powerful opiate gas into the theatre to subdue the hostage-takers before a pre-dawn raid was widely praised in Russia, despite the fact that most of the hostages who died were killed by the gas.

The group also said it was worried about Russia's decision to close all refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia and urge displaced Chechens back to their war-torn republic.

The report reserved harsh criticism for NATO, which formed a Russia-NATO council in May to give Moscow a voice in several areas of alliance policy-making.

"The most glaring lapse was the creation of the NATO-Russia Council, according Russia a special relationship notwithstanding Russian troops' ongoing serious humanitarian law violations in Chechnya," the report said, while also urging more European and UN involvement in the region.

It also accused the United States of failing to criticize Russia for its "abusive war" in Chechnya, which Putin has framed as part of the US-led global war on terror.

Moscow has been attempting to prove that the situation in Chechnya is under control, scheduling a constitutional referendum for March that should solidify the republic's place in the Russian Federation and is set to be followed by presidential and legislative elections.

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