17.02.2000 15:00 ON THE SITUATION IN THE NORTH CAUCASUS
SERGEI V. YASTRZHEMBSKY - assistant to the Russian Acting President for coordinating the information and analytical work of the federal bodies of executive authority involved in the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus
YASTRZHEMBSKY: Let's begin with the Defence Ministry's information about the progress of the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus. The ringleaders of the illegal armed formations continue to accumulate bandits in the mountain regions of Chechnya. In the past few hours, the bandits were leaving the settlements of Duba-Yurt, Khatuni and Makhety, mining houses, administrative buildings and adjacent areas. They are moving mostly towards the settlements of Dachu-Borzoi and Ulus-Kert, where they are trying to create echeloned defence lines.
We are getting reports according to which the warlords plan to stage several armed provocations against servicemen and local bodies of power, above all in Grozny, Gudermes, Argun, Urus-Martan and Shali. In the past day we also learned that large groups of fighters are trying to escape from the encirclement and surrender to the federal forces. In particular, some 60 fighters laid down arms in the settlements of Samashki and Sernovodsk.
The audiotape of Aslan Maskhadov's address, made two days after the liberation of Grozny, mentions the fighters' plans, too. Maskhadov addressed field commanders in the Chechen language, but I have here a complete, unedited translation of his address. Judging by it, the fighters do not exclude the possibility of undertaking another desperate attempt to go down from the mountains to the Chechen flatlands.
An excerpt from Maskhadov's address: "If this minute, when they begin, we are not ready, this will be an unforgivable mistake on our part. This is our last, decisive chance. The last chance to strike, and strike ruthlessly, to fight, to kill, to infiltrate wherever possible, destroying everything on our way. If we do not do this, the Russians will not be stopped... Instead of getting into their hands, we must knife and trample underfoot any Russian we can grab. And get pleasure from this. And this is why we must explain to everyone that there will be no amnesty, no mufti, and no Kadyrov - this is out of the question."
Information of the Interior Ministry: In the past day the units of the Ministry's Interior Troops held 16 special operations, detained 18 members of bandit groups, confiscated 38 firearms and 55 kg of drugs, rendered harmless 103 explosive devices, and liquidated 14 plants for the production of fuel and lubricants.
Information of the Office of the General Prosecutor: A large group of fighters, including the medical staff of the Chechen field hospital, which worked in Grozny, were detained in the vicinity of Alkhan-Kala during the operation to liberate Grozny on February 2. Following the corresponding investigation actions, which showed that the medical staff did not take part in illegal armed formations, Igor Tkachev, chief grave crimes investigator of the Main Directorate of the Office of the Russian General Prosecutor in the North Caucasus, ordered the release of all medical workers from the pre-trial detention centre in the settlement of Chernokozovo.
The federal forces sustained considerable losses during the liberation of settlements owing to the highly professional operation of sharpshooters. Most of them are mercenaries. The issue of women sharpshooters was raised back during the first Chechen campaign. We have irrefutable information to prove that such sharpshooters are operating now, too. According to our information, three women sharpshooters are held under arrest and the office of the General Prosecutor in the North Caucasus is investigating their actions, trying to determine the circumstances of their involvement in illegal armed formations.
One of them, born in Grozny in 1976, was detained on the battlefield in Alkhan-Kala. Another was born in the Tula Region in 1972. And the third was born in the Naursky Region in 1974. The latter is a wife of a field commander and worked in the customs service until October 1999. Her task was to track servicemen in the trains that passed through the Ishcherskaya railway station. There are numerous testimonies proving that she was a sharpshooter and killed federal servicemen. In addition, the prosecutor office is investigating the possibility that this woman was involved in the attack on the Budennovsk hospital in 1995.
We told you about Ali Yaman, born in 1967. There are grounds to suspect that he is a professional mercenary. We suggested that some accredited journalists tape him. ORT, NTV, ZDF and CNN formed a pool to do this and hence anyone present here has the right to get this material from your colleagues.
Following an operational investigation, carried out by Federal Security Service (FSB) agencies, Turkish national Ali Yaman, born in 1967, was detained, on suspicion of taking part in illegal armed formations, in the vicinity of the settlement of Gekhi-Chu on February 12. He told during the interrogation that he had come from Istanbul to Nalchik, allegedly for commercial reasons, on August 2. He has no permanent residence or profession. He said he had come to Chechnya to teach the Koran, although he has only primary education and does not know the Arab language. He was wounded when leaving Grozny.
On February 16, this Turkish national was delivered to Moscow, where he received emergency medical assistance; his case is being investigated now. We have the passport of Turkish national Ali Yaman, which is a chronicle of his mercenary activities. It has visas showing that he was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo and subsequently Pakistan in 1997. And his presence in those places always coincided with the upsurge of hostilities. This Turkish national was in Chechnya illegally, because his visa clearly stipulated his route and does not mention Chechnya.
Here is an excerpt from Ali Yaman's testimony: "My name is Ali Yaman, born in 1967, I don't remember the month. I came from Istanbul to Nalchik by a Russian visa; I had no right to go to Grozny... I have a relative in Istanbul, a commissar in the department of the General Directorate of Security of the Interior Ministry of Turkey. His name is Kemal Pelid. Education primary. In Istanbul I sold bus tickets, was a shoe-shiner and street peddler." And this barely educated man intended to teach the Koran. "I know that I violated Russian laws; I had no right to leave Nalchik and go to Grozny." The investigation of his case goes on.
Information of the office of the Russian Government in the Chechen Republic: Vice Premier Nikolai Koshman, plenipotentiary representative of the Russian Government in Chechnya, had a working meeting with the heads of temporary Interior Ministry departments, law enforcement structures and special services of Chechnya in Gudermes today. He presented to the audience Vladimir Kravchenko, the Prosecutor of the Chechen Republic.
It was pointed out at the meeting that one of the main tasks during this year's day of memory of Stalin's deportation of the Ingush and Chechens would be to preclude extremist provocations. Another task would be to preclude possible attempts of the separatists to disrupt the voting procedure at individual polling stations during the elections of the Russian president. The audience was told that the prosecutor office of the Chechen Republic had been established and started working in Grozny. The servicemen of the Chechen OMON are expected to take the oath on February 18-22.
On the financial allocations to Chechnya. Acting on the instructions of the Russian Government, the Finance Ministry provided 97.5 million roubles to the Chechen Republic in February. Of this sum, 8 million roubles will be spent on compensation payments to republican citizens who have children; 13.5 million roubles will be spent on wages to educational, health and cultural staff; 13 million roubles will be spent on the purchase of textbooks and school furniture, and on compensation payments to teachers for the purchase of methods literature; and over 3 million roubles will be spent on the repayment of wage arrears to the public sector staff.
Information from Gudermes. The office of the Chechen Republic at the Russian President, acting with the mediation of the Ministry of Health, signed an agreement with the Ministry of Social Insurance for the free manufacture of artificial limbs for amputee children. The heads of local administrations in the liberated regions of Chechnya received an emergency task to collect information about such children with the purpose of giving them free medical and prosthetic assistance.
Information about the Chechen oil complex. As of late January, Chechnya produced and dispatched 6,370 tonnes of oil,
following which the loading of oil stopped temporarily owing to the absence of tank cars. This work was resumed on February 14. The eight working wells in Chechnya daily produce an average of 1,200 tonnes of oil, which is sold at domestic prices (2,600 roubles per tonne) to Russian refineries. The returns are spent on the restoration of the economic, social and everyday facilities of the republic.
The Ministry of Emergencies is redoubling its efforts in Grozny and other regions of Chechnya. Hot meals were issued to over 3,000 people in the Staropromyslovsky, Zavodskoi, Oktyabrsky and Leninsky districts of Grozny yesterday.
I would like to return to the questions, which you asked at the previous briefing. Somebody asked about contract servicemen in the Chechen Republic. According to available information, there are 3,192 contract servicemen in Chechnya, over a half of whom signed contracts during the counter-terrorist operation. Here is the information of the Defence Ministry: over 30% of sergeants and privates signed contracts. There were less than 9% of such servicemen in October 1999.
Some mass media have reported, quoting representatives of the Memorial society that graves of some 200 civilians had been found outside the settlement of Katyr-Yurt. It was said that the settlement had been virtually erased. I will tell you what happened there to give you the true picture.
After most of the militants who broke out of Grozny were destroyed in the area of Alkhan-Kala, another 500-strong grouping broke through to Katyr-Yurt.
On February 5 this village was sealed off. The first attempt at mopping up failed because federal forces came up against dense fire from the militants.
As militants first appeared at Katyr-Yurt, locals began to trickle out of the village. On February 4-5 practically no civilian population was left there. That was precisely during the days when Russian troops were unleashing an operation to annihilate the militants entrenched in Katyr-Yurt.
On February 6 a massive strike was delivered. On February 7-8 troops continued to decimate the grouping, with intensive fighting lasting two days and federal troops suffering losses. On February 8, the thing was practically done, and on February 9 Interior Ministry troops carried out a mopping-up operation.
A total of 120 militant turned themselves in. The fighting left 147 militants dead and lying on the battlefield. Graves that were found contained around 160 militants, covered with a thin layer of earth. No massive burials of civilians of any kind were found at Katyr-Yurt.
Now to turn to Le Monde. I have always viewed this newspaper as a model for objectivity and impartiality among international media. Now, following its correspondents' impressive performance in Ingushetia, I can say Le Monde and all sort of fibs are one and the same thing. What I mean to say is that you are misinforming French public opinion.
Thanks to Le Monde's example, the theme of Chernokozovo has been taken up by all international media. If your information is analysed, it will reveal not a single fact not based on fantasy or anonymous sources, rather than on reality. One gets the impression that all old-time ideas once current in France about Russia came alive in these reports. There are Cossacks, vodka, and brutality, and it needs only bears and samovars for public opinion to swallow hook, line and sinker all you write.
I wish to tell you Mr. Bonnet, and hope this will find a place in your next report, that Chernokozovo has never had Russian troops in it, nor does it have them now. No soldiers are stationed there. You are quoting from a letter by an unnamed soldier. At Chernokozovo there are only officers and warrant officers of the Justice Ministry.
I am not going to paint all the nightmares that are present here and reportedly occur at Chernokozovo. A claim that 48 contract Cossacks from Rostov and Volgograd engage in massive tortures is a thumping lie. A further soul-searing report that the mass of children there are also subjected to torturing is likewise a whopping lie. This is all on your conscience. There are no underage children at Chernokozovo.
You all heard yesterday detailed information from Yuri Kalinin, Deputy Justice Minister. Altogether, the number of people that passed through Chernokozovo is 744, with 235 still there and 364 released. At the moment there are 16 women at Chernokozovo. None of the released - and this is yet another lie - was made to sign a commitment that he has no grievances against the detention centre administration.
A quotation French style - that is untrue, Mr. Bonnet. There has not been a single case when Russia has refused a request to visit the region to gain a better understanding of the situation there.
At various times Chechnya has seen visitors from the UN, OSCE, Islamic Conference, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, the UN high commissioner for refugees, and a PACE delegation. Now the Commission on Tortures is sending a delegation.
To learn all this it is enough just to pick up a receiver and ask which delegations have been to Chechnya and which have been barred by Russian authorities from entering it. Then I would have said: indeed you have done your homework.
My impression is that you are concocting your reports basing yourself on the ample experience of the French colonial war in Algeria. I think this practice is unworthy of such an influential paper as Le Monde. But most unfortunately it is on the basis of Le Monde dispatches that the French establishment draws its conclusions about what happens in Russia.
FRANCE PRESSE AGENCY: Now about the International Red Cross - they said yesterday they had sent in several applications to allow them to see filtration points. Was there any response from authorities? And concerning yesterday's claim by Robertson that Putin had reportedly agreed to appoint a sort of representative?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: I will have the first question checked, there may be many such requests. According to my information, working on a permanent basis in the North Caucasian region, in coordination with Russia's Emergencies Ministry, are the UN World Food Programme, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Red Cross Committee, the UN Children's Fund, the Danish Council for Refugees, the Norwegian Council for Refugees and the Inter-Departmental Joint Committee of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Aid for Kosovo and Chechnya.
A request for a permanent presence in the region has arrived from Germany's non-governmental organisation Kap Anamur.
As you see, there is a wide spectrum of bodies represented here. It is quite possible that each of them may be making all kinds of requests. I see no problem in representatives of humanitarian organisations visiting Chernokozovo.
On the second question. It was said that the office of a representative of Russian authorities on human rights in the UN specially for the Chechen Republic is now being mooted. And if such a decision is made, naturally a citizen of the Russian Federation will be appointed.
IHLAZ ABAS AGENCY: Did the detained Turkish subject say anything about his links with the Hizbollah movement?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: I do not have information that he belongs to Hizbollah. But we will re-check it.
THE SAME AGENCY: How true is the information that the Radio Liberty correspondent has left for Istanbul?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: I have no such information and hear it for the first time.
GERMAN TELEVISION: Can you give more details about the situation in the Argun Gorge?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: As for the Argun Gorge, this is the place where the bulk of bandit groups is concentrated, according to available information. Federal troops are doing reconnoitring. Priority is given to aviation bombardment and shelling of targets but no active fighting has been reported so far. There is a struggle for commanding heights.
GEORGIAN EMBASSY: The Georgian side wants to thank you for objective information made available recently on events in Chechnya. You understand this is very important for Georgia. At the same time, I would like to emphasise once more that Georgia, which has suffered so much pain and grief from separatism and international terrorism, will never allow Georgia's territory to act as a transit way for ammunition or militants.
The day before yesterday you said that terrorists may cross into Georgia. Could you comment on this in more detail?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: Thank you for your kind words, we have been hearing them rarely of late. As for your question, the thing mentioned was a conjecture. Since the situation is becoming increasingly dramatic for encircled militants, they have two options left - either to surrender or to be destroyed. We suppose there may be separate infiltration attempts. Single militants may try to escape towards Daghestan or towards Georgia. To prevent this from happening, our border guards are doing their best on the Russian-Georgian frontier. I think the border on the Russian side is now protected better than anytime before.
EGYPTIAN TELEVISION: Could you tell us about what awaits the Khachilayev brothers. Magomed recently showed up on television screens, although he had been arrested, while nothing is yet known about Nadyr.
YASTRZHEMBSKY: Concerning Khachilayev I will take timeout and give you more detailed information tomorrow.
EGYPTIAN TELEVISION: A ban on civilians returning to Grozny is effective until March 1?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: I heard nothing about March 1. I spoke of a couple of weeks that will be required to finally flush out the militants remaining in basements of ruined buildings in order to clear mines and pull down the remnants of those buildings that may threaten human lives and disrupt traffic through Grozny.
BOSTON GLOBE: Once more about Grozny. Could you say how many people are left there? And a second question: concerning militant infiltration - in general how easily can militants move across the republic, especially in those places where federal authorities are already in control?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: First about Grozny. The main aim is to prevent the militants hiding in Grozny's basements from mixing up with the civilian population as it might start flocking back in large numbers to the city. The city must be cleared of those who are hiding in basements with arms. There are lots of mines, and the military fears and justly that civilians might start getting killed or injured unless work is done to clear the city of mines.
Estimates of the remaining population vary. One of the latest figures, provided by the Emergencies Ministry, is 6,000
Now about infiltration. This does happen, obviously. Why obviously? Because at a news briefing every day I give you figures reported by the Interior Ministry - on the number of militants or people suspected of being militants, who were detained at roadblocks. Such roadblocks are set up in many directions, on roads, at entrances to populated localities, and they check the flow of passing people. Many are let through, but there are also ones who are detained and then sent off for closer screening.
So they naturally try to move across the republic, through liberated areas, and the task of interior troops is to hinder them in every possible way.
LE MONDE: Our question concerns a statement made by UN commissioner Mary Robertson. She spoke of human rights abuses on the territory of Chechnya. She also regretted that Russia did not agree with her requests to send international observers to the territory of Chechnya. What can you say about that? The European committee on tortures does not confirm that it is going to visit Chechnya.
YASTRZHEMBSKY: The information you have is strange indeed. We prepare this programme jointly with the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. As for Robertson's statement, she did not say (I know her statement) that international observers have been refused. She said that she herself, unfortunately, had not yet been to the Chechen Republic - this is a big difference. So I will take up this matter with the Foreign Ministry to see how things stand with Mrs Robertson's possible visit to the Chechen Republic.
LIBERTY RADIO: What myths do you think are spread by Liberty Radio about Andrei Babitsky? I hope you do not mean official statements broadcast by our station.
YASTRZHEMBSKY: No, of course not. What you describe as myths we define as inaccuracies and misinterpretations that crop up in statements by your managers. In a telephone conversation I had with Mr Trimble he admitted that sometimes your top executives are carried away by their emotions. It is these excessive emotions that give rise to stories and myths.
A DUTCH NEWSPAPER: Apart from Le Monde, other media too report torturing and deaths of civilians at the hands of federal troops in Grozny. For example, there were reports about 44 deaths in Grozny. Do you know any other cases and did they actually occur?
YASTRZHEMBSKY: No cases are known to me. But rumours about alleged cases are. There are several main sources, which are mainly based on Udugov's Internet site and also on people sent to Ingushetia specially for this purpose. And, sitting in Ingushetia, they send out SOS signals about what is happening in the Chechen Republic.
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