Unarmed Chechen civilians attempting to maintain a neutral zone in the town of Gekhi came under direct, point-blank fire from Chechen rebel fighters on Sunday, November 28.

Gekhi, located about 20 kilometers southwest of Grozny, had already come under heavy bombardment by Russian forces on November 7-8. That attack, according to many eyewitnesses interviewed by a Human Rights Watch research team in Ingushetia, resulted in civilian casualties, left numerous houses in ruins, and severely damaged the local hospital. Many civilians, including women and children, still remain in Gekhi, and cannot flee due to dangerous conditions en route to Ingushetia.

Human Rights Watch researchers gathered testimony in separate interviews with three of those wounded during Sunday's incident in Gekhi. Their accounts fully corresponded to each other.

The three wounded men— "Islam," 34 years old, "Hasan," 49 years old, and "Lyoma," 47 years old— recounted to Human Rights Watch how in recent weeks, rebel fighters regularly entered Gekhi from Urus-Martan to fire on Russian positions located several kilometers away, and then withdrew immediately. This strategy would regularly attract Russian fire.

Close to one week ago, residents established a checkpoint in the center of Gekhi on the road leading to Urus-Martan. Soon after the checkpoint was established, the witnesses told Human Rights Watch, Russian firing on Gekhi ceased. Three days ago, elders from Gekhi met with Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of Russian forces in western Chechnya, in Achkhoi-Martan. Gen. Shamanov reportedly assured the elders that if Russian forces were not fired upon, they would not return fire on Gekhi.

Islam recounted that on November 28 at 2:00 p.m., he and four other men were staffing the checkpoint, unarmed, when about ten heavily-armed rebel fighters appeared, apparently from the direction of Urus-Martan. Islam said the rebel fighters dismissed pleas not to enter the town. "Who is the eldest here?" one of them asked. "Are you defending the village?" When the residents responded affirmatively, the rebels replied, "And who do you think you are?"

"Then they started to shoot, at very close range, aiming straight at our legs" with 5.45-caliber automatics, said Islam. One bullet went directly through Islam's leg, while another lodged in his shin.

Hasan received bullet wounds in both legs. He corroborated Islam's testimony. "We provoked them in no way at all," said Hasan. "They want to get in to our village, to attack the Russian positions. But we don't have rebel fighters here, and we don't want them."

Lyoma received a bullet-wound in the right leg. "They were practically standing right beside me, that's how close they were," he said.