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Russian Moms: Nyet To Chechnya!

With young Russian conscripts being killed in Chechnya practically every day, the military is filling its ranks by illegally seizing draft-age men on the streets, raiding dormitories, and inducting men with chronic illnesses, a human rights group said Thursday.

"The Constitution is no authority for bureaucrats fulfilling their quota of cannon fodder for the war in Chechnya," Valentina Melnikova, a leader of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, said in a statement Thursday.

Russia's semiannual draft, which sends men aged 18 to 27 into an army notorious for its abysmal living conditions and brutal hazing, is viewed by many conscripts as a terrifying prospect even in peacetime.

But since Russia began its offensive in Chechnya last fall, conscripts have been sent into battle after barely six months of often slapdash training. And thousands are not coming back.

The military command, meanwhile, is going to increasingly greater lengths, often breaking the law, to fill the ranks in Chechnya, Soldiers' Mothers leaders said at a news conference Thursday.

"No laws exist for them," said Tatyana Kuznetsova of the committee's Moscow branch, referring to a notorious draft office in the capital's Lyubertsy suburb.

"Rudeness, blatant lies, blackmail, threats against the boys and their parents - these are their methods."

Twice a year, the military calls up about 160,000-200,000 men to serve in the army. Last month, the army said that as a result of exemptions and draft-dodging, it was currently meeting only about 60 percent of its demand.

The Soldiers' Mothers' Committee says it has documented cases of police, acting on military orders, seizing young men at polling stations; handcuffing young men in public parks, without even checking IDs to see if they are of draft age; and raiding a student dormitory.

AP Photo
A Chechen woman
mourning war dead.

Military officials also have been drafting men with chronic illnesses, often as serious as leukemia and tuberculosis, said activist Natalya Shvol. Military doctors summarily pronounce the men fit, and diagnoses made by civilian doctors are disregarded.

"Every chronic illness is aggravated in those conditions, and kids come to us who have become completely ill as a result of the draft," Shvol said.

According to the latest official figures released Thursday, Russian losses in the North Caucasus region are some 2,400 killed and 7,000 wounded since August. But the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, which works with the families of killed or missing soldiers, estimates that the losses are at least 5,000 dead and 10,000 injured.

Chechen losses have been hard to estimate, with allegations of massacres complicating the numbers, but casualties ave been high and some claim the Chechen death toll is over 100,000.

Estimates also say some 200,000 Chechens have been forced out of their homes, or been forced to flee their homes, because of the war.

The latest phase of the war has been marked by a steady stream of hit-and-run attacks by insurgents. Almost every night, Russian checkpoints and headquarters come under fire from small, fast-moving groups of rebels using rifles and grenade launchers.

Two Russian servicemen were killed and two wounded Wednesday when they drove into a rebel ambush near the town of Mesker-Yurt, in the supposedly federally controlled Urus-Martan region.

At least half a dozen bodies arrive in the military morgue in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don every day, even when the military says there have been no casualties, Melnikova told the news conference.

AP Photo
Some 200,000 Chechens
have become refugees
because of the war.

Soldiers in Chechnya have also given similar accounts, often saying they have seen their comrades die and later heard official denials of any losses.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin promised in 1996 to transform the army into an all-volunteer force and end conscription by the year 2000. But the government later abandoned the plan, saying it could not afford a professional army.

The Russian Constitution allows alternative service. But parliament has not passed legislation putting the constitutional provision into effect, and exemptions for conscientious objectors are almost unheard of.

"They (conscripts) don't have the right to live. They only have the duty to be killed," activist Anna Ignatyeva said.

Russian troops were expelled from Chechnya by independence fighters in a 1994-96 war. Russian forces re-entered in September after Islamic militants in Chechnya seized villages in the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan, and after about 300 people died in apartment bombings the government blames on Chechens.

Chechen civilians, human rights organizations and many western governments have severely criticized the Russian military's conduct in the war in Chechnya, accusing troops of looting, rape and murder.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented four large massacres of civilians in Chechnya since September.

Last month, the United Nations called on Russia to open an inquiry by independent observers into the alleged massacres and other war crimes. Russia has rejected what it calls international interference, and prosecutors have previously said they found no evidence to support some of the foreign human rights groups' allegations.

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