Human Rights Watch is urging Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin to refrain from using fuel-air explosives in populated areas of Chechnya.
A top Russian military official has acknowledged Russia's intention to use fuel-air explosives (FAEs) in Chechnya. At a February 11 press briefing, Gen. Valery Manilov, Deputy Chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, said that fuel-air explosives, "which are extraordinarily effective on caves, tunnels, or clefts, in mountain areas," could be used in Chechnya "if considered necessary." In December, Gen. Manilov had denied reports in the Russian and international media that FAEs were used in Grozny. Reports also alleged the weapons were used in the mountains of southern Chechnya, and in the Dagestani village of Tando in August 1999.
"Based on the Russians' military practices in the war in Chechnya so far, we have absolutely no faith that they will use fuel-air explosives responsibly," said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. "They shouldn't use these extremely destructive weapons in populated areas of Chechnya. Their use against populated areas would violate international norms on indiscriminate attacks."
One Russian military expert has described the impact of FAEs as "comparable to low-yield nuclear munitions." While FAEs are not explicitly banned under international humanitarian law, they are prone to indiscriminate use given their wide-area impact. Their use against populated areas would violate international norms on indiscriminate attacks.
Human Rights Watch's letter to Acting President Putin noted that many villages in Chechnya's mountainous south were still populated by many civilians, including people displaced from other parts of Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the large number of civilian casualties caused by the widespread and often indiscriminate bombing and shelling by Russian forces using more conventional munitions. Human Rights Watch researchers working in the Northern Caucasus have documented dozens of incidents in which Russian bombing and shelling have caused significant loss of civilian lives, ranging from large-scale incidents such as the October 21, 1999 attack on Grozny's central market, and the October 29, 1999 attack by Russian warplanes on a refugee convoy near Shaami-Yurt, to the countless other smaller-scale incidents throughout Chechnya.
To read a backgrounder on Fuel-air explosives prepared by Human Rights Watch, please visit https://www.hrw.org/press/2000/02/chech0215b.htm
The letter to Acting President Putin is below.
February 14, 2000
President Vladimir Putin
Dear President Putin,
On behalf of Human Rights Watch, we are writing to express our deep concern about the reported use of fuel-air explosives against targets in southern Chechnya and the capital, Grozny. The use of fuel-air explosive bombs, known popularly in Russia as "vacuum bombs," would represent a dangerous escalation of the Chechnya conflict with important humanitarian implications. Fuel-air explosives (FAEs) have the potential to cause massive destruction over a wide area, and could cause extensive civilian casualties if used near populated areas. So far, the Russian military has reportedly used FAE bombs in the Dagestani village of Tando in August 1999, and more recently in the suburbs of Grozny and the mountains of southern Chechnya.
In addition, Human Rights Watch remains profoundly concerned about the large number of civilian casualties caused by the widespread bombing and shelling of civilian areas by Russian forces using other conventional weapons. Human Rights Watch researchers in the Northern Caucasus have documented dozens of incidents in which Russian bombing and shelling have caused significant loss of civilian lives, ranging from large-scale incidents such as the October 21, 1999 attack on Grozny's central market, and the October 29, 1999 attack by Russian warplanes on a refugee convoy near Shaami-Yurt, to the countless incidents in which shelling has resulted in civilian deaths and injuries throughout Chechnya. The indiscriminate nature of many of these attacks indicates that the Russian military authorities are not taking the necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties, as Russia is obliged to do under the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols.
We are particularly concerned about the reported use of FAEs because they can be indiscriminate in effect, especially in or near populated areas. FAEs cover a wide area and are very destructive to personnel in fortifications, bunkers, and other buildings. Their use would be indiscriminate in Grozny, where Chechen fighters are reportedly dug in, and where tens of thousands of civilians are believed to remain trapped. In urban settings like Grozny it will be impossible for the Russian military to limit the effect of this weapon to combatants, and the nature of FAE explosions makes it virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect.
Interfax reported that FAE-type weapons were used in a suburb of Grozny in December, and, according to unnamed military sources cited in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Russian military used FAE-type explosions in September in southern Chechnya as well, endangering not only local inhabitants but also displaced persons from other areas of Chechnya. According to villagers from southern Chechnya interviewed by Human Rights Watch, many of the villages in the area have populations double or triple their peacetime population because of the heavy influx of displaced persons from other areas of Chechnya before the Russian offensive moved south.
In southern Chechnya, civilians are trapped behind Russian lines, unable to flee combat areas because Russian commanders are unwilling to provide genuinely secure "safe corridors." A similar situation exists in Grozny, with tens of thousands of civilians trapped and unable to flee the city to safety. Under these conditions, the use of FAEs could tragically lead to incidents in which an unacceptable civilian death toll is caused.
Although much relevant information about fuel-air explosives remains classified, Russian and foreign experts agree on their destructive nature. According to one Russian military scientist writing for the Russian military magazine Voyennyye Znaniya (Military Knowledge), FAE weapons can be deployed against exposed personnel, combat equipment, fortified areas, and individual defensive fortifications, clearing passages in mine fields, clearing landing sites for helicopters, destroying communication centers, and neutralizing strongholds in house-to-house fighting in a city. "In its destructive capability, [FAEs are] comparable to low-yield nuclear munitions," concluded the Russian military expert.
U.S. studies of the impact of FAE explosives are similar to Russian assessments. According to a 1993 study by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, "The [blast] kill mechanism against living targets is unique—and unpleasant.... What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs.... If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents."
Human Rights Watch respectfully urges you to:
Refrain from using fuel-air explosives in the conflict in Chechnya;
Create secure and clearly announced safe corridors for civilians wishing to flee areas of conflict, and ensure that these corridors are not fired upon or shelled when in use; and
Implement adequate targeting precautions to protect civilians during shelling and bombing incidents.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch