Russian government troops are arbitrarily detaining hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chechen men in a new round of sweep operations. Eyewitnesses from several villages alleged torture, ill-treatment, and extortion of the detainees.

In at least two villages, Sernovodsk and Alkhan-Kala, Russian forces went from house to house rounding up men without so much as conducting an initial passport check, villagers told Human Rights Watch. During Tuesday's sweep operation in Sernovodsk, prompted by a bomb explosion the previous day, hundreds of men were detained; the Alkhan-Kala sweep, which aimed to seize rebel leader Arbi Baraev, took place from June 19 to 25.

"The level of arbitrary detentions we are seeing now is unprecedented," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "This amounts to collective punishment and is absolutely unacceptable."

Human Rights Watch researchers learned of other sweep operations in the last ten days in Assinovskaia, Kurchaloi, Mairtup, Starye Atagi, as well as two districts of Grozny. Many Chechens feared similar sweeps in other villages as well.

The new-style sweeps in Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia have already led to a new influx of fleeing civilians into Ingushetia. Human Rights Watch researchers in the region noticed an increase in the number of displaced Chechens in camps close to the Chechen-Ingush administrative border. Many civilians from Sernovodsk-including many who stayed in a camp for displaced people in the town-walked across the hills into Ingushetia Tuesday night, saying they feared a further sweep on Wednesday.

As of Thursday, it was unclear whether the new arrivals would stay in Ingushetia or return once the sweep in Sernovodsk ends. Human Rights Watch is concerned that those who wish to stay in Ingushetia may face problems registering with the Ingush authorities, as the Russian government ordered an end to registration of new displaced persons from Chechnya starting April 1, 2001.

On Thursday, the heads of administration of Sernovodsk and Assinovskaia villages resigned in protest over what they said were "unreasonably severe" sweep operations. That same day, the deputy head of the Kurchaloi district administration resigned for the same reason.

The sweep operation in Sernovodsk started early in the morning of July 2, apparently in response to a bomb explosion that killed several federal soldiers. "Aset A." (not the woman's real name), a middle-aged school teacher, told Human Rights Watch she heard tanks moving into the village overnight. By around 6:00 a.m., helicopters dropped off special forces. By 10:00 a.m., the troops started conducting house-to-house checks and detained most males they encountered. Aset A. said that her nineteen-year-old nephew and at least two of her students, aged fourteen or fifteen, were among those detained. All detainees were taken to a field outside Sernovodsk.

Several witnesses reported that many of those detained were tortured or ill-treated. Aset A. said her nephew was beaten while in custody. She told Human Rights Watch that when she saw him after his release, he had one black eye and his torso and legs were severely bruised. He also told her that he had been tortured with electroshock. "Ramzan R." (not the man's real name) told Human Rights Watch that he and many others were taken into special cars, where they were tortured. He said he had been beaten and subjected to electroshock.

The troops released the majority of the detainees in the early hours of July 3. Several witnesses said soldiers forced detainees to sign statements saying they had no complaints about their treatment in detention. Some detainees were transferred to the temporary police station in Achkhoi-Martan. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm their number or the charges against them.