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Shadowy kidnappings keep Chechens on edge

GROZNY, Russia -- It happens every day in Chechnya, and it can happen anywhere: on the packed minibuses that carry commuters through bombed-out city streets, at the outdoor markets dotting boulevards lined with ruined apartment blocks, during prayer at battle-scarred mosques, or in the frail shelter of one's own home.

Masked, heavily armed men in unidentifiable uniforms show up in armored vehicles and demand to see documents. Sometimes, they seem to be looking for a person. Sometimes, they round up and take away every fighting-age male in their path. Some of those they detain come back telling harrowing stories of beatings and torture to family members and human rights groups.

Many never come back at all.

This is what the Kremlin's war against separatist rebels has become four years after Russian troops, warplanes, and artillery pummeled Chechnya's capital into submission: a covert campaign of attrition, pitting shadowy federal forces against a furtive, yet implacable guerrilla army that kills a dozen Russian soldiers each week.

Although the massive artillery and air attacks that flattened entire neighborhoods and villages have subsided, Russia's campaign is still dangerous for its troops and the rebels they hunt in Chechnya's shellshocked towns and in the impenetrable Caucasus mountain wilderness to the south. It is dangerous, too, for civilians who get caught in the dragnet and, rights advocates say, often end up the victims of illegal detention, torture, even summary execution.

Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration acknowledges that 317 civilians disappeared last year; 48 were found murdered and 269 are missing. But Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial, one of the groups trying to detail human rights violations despite severe restrictions imposed by the Russian military, estimates that the numbers of missing and killed may be many times higher. He said more than 3,000 Chechens had disappeared since 1999, "taken away by strangers in camouflage driving armored vehicles."

Official denial Russian authorities, trying to portray Chechnya as a success story before the March 14 election that incumbent President Vladimir V. Putin is expected to win easily, deny involvement of federal and loyalist Chechen security forces in the disappearances. They say rebels are doing the kidnapping.

It is an easy sell to many ordinary Russians, who have been terrorized by suicide attacks attributed to the Chechen rebels that have claimed more than 300 lives across the country in the past 18 months. Those attacks include the deadly Feb. 4 subway bombing in Moscow that killed 41 people and wounded more than 130, and a suicide bomb on a packed commuter train near Chechnya that killed 44 people in December.

But Moscow's dismissive attitude on the disappearances is unnerving to Chechens.

"To us, it means they can do whatever they want to us, and that no one will be punished," said Aslanbekh, a journalism student in Grozny who asked that his last name not be used. "We live in constant fear that a friend or loved one will be the next to disappear."

The US State Department last week criticized Russia's Chechnya campaign in its annual report on human rights, saying federal security forces "demonstrated little respect for basic human rights." The report cited "unlawful killings," "politically motivated disappearances," and "abuse of civilians" by federal troops and the rebels alike.

Isa Eskiyev, 33, and Uslan Eskiyev, 30, are two who vanished. It was 2 a.m. when men in masks riding in an armored personnel carrier roared up to their house in a run-down village on Chechnya's eastern frontier. They pounded on the door and said they were looking for a suspected rebel who lived in a nearby house. The Eskiyevs' mother, Makka Salamova, said the Russian-speaking intruders tied her up and stuffed a piece of cloth in her mouth, then did the same with her sons' wives. She said they beat her sons and dragged them away. That was last June, and she has not heard news of them since.

"They took innocent people," Salamova said, sobbing. She was speaking to several reporters whom Russian authorities brought to Chechnya under armed guard recently to prove Moscow's assertion that life is returning to normal in the war-shattered republic.

Asked about the automatic weapons fire that shattered the calm outside a military base in northern Grozny one night, a Russian military spokesman, Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, said, "It must have been a helicopter." The next day, pro-Russian Chechen officials reported that 10 Russian servicemen had died in rebel attacks.

Shabalkin's role was to show off the successful reconstruction of Chechnya's capital, a daunting task in a devastated city where Russian troops sweep for hidden explosive devices each morning and where every major intersection features a heavily fortified military checkpoint.

A trip to one of the first few buildings in Grozny with a newly rebuilt elevator revealed that the residents hoist water up to their unheated apartments with a bucket and rope. The gaping craters in the upper floors of nearly every apartment block drew the eye away from the newly painted street-level storefronts.

The sparkling new government compound -- rebuilt after a suicide truck bomb leveled the old one in December 2002, killing 75 people -- stood in a wasteland of devastated former factories.

Chechens who spoke out of earshot of Russian soldiers wanted to talk about disappearances, not normality.

"It's the most dangerous thing for us young men," Aslan Sakhurov, 17, said outside his temporary home in a dormitory built for returning refugees. He said half of his friends had been detained, and two never came back. `If your hair is too long, they take you. If you have a beard, they take you. If your pants are rolled up the wrong way, they say you are a [rebel]. It happens every day."

Chechnya's pro-Moscow president, Akhmad Kadyrov, who has taken on increased responsibility under Putin's normalization plan since winning an October election that international observers dismissed as a sham, told reporters one of his top tasks is to put a stop to the disappearances.

But Chechens and international human rights groups say security forces loyal to Kadyrov are responsible for many of the disappearances, holding detainees in a network of small, private jails, often pits in the ground.

"People believe that every important person in Chechnya has his own torture pit," said a Grozny journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Memorial, the rights group, has documented dozens of cases in recent months implicating a special task force led by Kadyrov's son, Ramzan.

The younger Kadyrov denied the allegations and insisted he was hunting down separatist rebels, not innocent civilians.

"Even if I had a prison, I wouldn't have told you. Does that make me a bandit?" he told reporters in Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city. "I don't want people in Chechnya to disappear. . . . I have not kidnapped a single person."

But he declined to take reporters to a chicken farm in the nearby village of Avtury, which Chechen human rights advocates have reported to be a makeshift detention and torture center.

Climate of fear Investigating such allegations can be deadly. On Jan. 10, about 50 masked troops snatched Aslan Davletukayev, an activist for a rights group called the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, from his home in Avtury. The group cited witnesses as saying the soldiers beat him and took him away at gunpoint. His family hoped to pay a ransom to free him.

But Davletukayev's body was found six days later. His arms and legs were broken, and his body bore numerous stab wounds. The cause of death was a bullet in the back of his head.

Such reports are one reason Chechen refugees still living in camps in neighboring Ingushetia are reluctant to return home.

Refugees say that authorities, anxious to empty the camps before the March vote, are turning up the pressure for them to return to Chechnya. They say officials have begun turning off gas, electricity, and water.

Kadyrov denies any pressure but says conditions in Chechnya are better than in the camps. To lure refugees back, the government is offering up to $12,500 per family in compensation for destroyed property.

But only about 1,600 people have received money. Some, like, Zhunid Zakriyev, who returned to Chechnya in December after four years in Ingushetia, regret returning. The room that he, his wife, and four children share, in one of 14 brick dormitories built in Grozny for returning refugees, is too small and bare. There is no money, gas, clean water, or reliable electricity. And it is always dangerous to go outside.

"They promised us heaps of gold. Now we're here. They don't even give us bread," Zakriyev said, as his daughter Fatima, 10, began weeping. "It was better to live in the tents."

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