The Russian government denies that the current offensive in Chechnya has cost civilian lives, but Human Rights Watch researchers in southern Russia have gathered evidence indicating that Russian warplanes have killed dozens of non-combatants.
On a radio interview on Sunday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated, "Everything that concerns the bombing of peaceful residents is the ill-intended propaganda of terrorists."
"That is simply not true," stated Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "Civilians are clearly getting killed in this conflict."
In recent weeks, the media have reported on unconfirmed civilian casualties that resulted from Russian air raids throughout Chechnya. In thorough, detailed interviews, Human Rights Watch researchers have been able to document civilian casualties in at least two such raids. In one incident on October 3, Russian bombers attacked Urus-Martan, a mid-sized town fifteen miles south of Grozny, killing twenty-seven civilians. In a second attack, Russian warplanes killed seven noncombatants and wounded twenty in an attack on the northeastern Grozny suburb, Staraya Sunzha.
While in both cases Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether the attacks were violations of humanitarian law, the in-depth interviews confirmed what Russian officials have steadfastly denied: that civilian casualties are mounting in Chechnya. Not all civilian casualties constitute violations of humanitarian law. For the latter, military planners must have either targeted civilians, fired indiscriminately, or failed to apply the principle of proportionality in planning and executing attacks.
Vakha Guchigov, a forty-five-year-old businessman who witnessed the Usus -Martan raid, told Human Rights Watch that five pairs of Russian warplanes attacked the town at 5:30 p.m., firing multiple air-to-surface missiles. The plane approached from the northwest, circled the town several times, and then attacked from the northeast. One missile struck a home bordering the central square, killing a middle-aged male. Additional missiles destroyed two residences, owned by the Kerimov family on Kalanchakskaya Street, at the extreme southern edge of town. Nine person were killed, including Hasan Kerimov, 40; his wife, 33; their infant son; Ablan Kerimov, 34; his wife, 30; a male relative, 27; a female relative, 22; a young girl under ten years of age; and a 40 year-old female member of the Gaitayev family. The witness told Human Rights Watch that he buried the nine victims in hastily dug communal graves in the southern part of town. A further 17 persons died elsewhere in the attack, including at least two women. The total death toll from the raid was 27.
The Russian planes may have been aiming at a guerilla compound located about a mile and a half southeast of the central square and one mile east of the Kerimov residences. The compound has several hundred anti-Russian fighters, but was situated 300 yards to the southeast of the Urus-Martan town border. In peacetime, some 60,000 people live in Urus-Martan, but that number had swelled to 100,00 at the time of the attack.
The second raid was launched against targets in Staraya Sunzha, a northeastern Grozny suburb, home to some 8,600 residents, on September 26. Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a pair of Russian warplanes circled the area and then fired air-to surface missiles at 10:30 a.m. The projectiles destroyed a private home on Batakuyeva Street, another home on Okruzhnaya Street, and Secondary School no. 1, located between Khan-Pasha Nuradilova and Avtobusnaya street. Seven members of the Umkhayev and Temirsultanov family were killed, including a 50 year-old male, a 60 year-old female; a 30 year-old female; and four children. The attack on Secondary School no. 1 wounded some twenty students, some seriously. Human Rights Watch was unable to determine the warplanes' intended targets.