- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 1999

SLEPTSOVSKAYA, Russia Russia tried to force thousands of refugees back into Chechnya by coupling an engine to the railroad cars they were living in and towing them toward the war-shattered republic, pursued by frightened, screaming children.

The weekend operation was a new development in Russia's efforts to try to return some of the 250,000 people who have fled the tumultuous republic since fighting began three months ago.

The attempt to move the third-class sleeper cars in the republic of Ingushetia, where about 7,000 refugees were living, began Friday morning with the wagons jostling into motion unexpectedly.

Children studying in a tent school nearby were separated from their parents, and were afraid they would be left behind.

"The children ran from the tent, yelling," said Rosa Gaitaiva, with her arms draped around her the neck of her 7-year-old daughter, Imam. She said Imam was in the school but managed to jump on the train as it was moving.

The refugees, most of whom are Muslims observing the fasting month of Ramadan, also were separated from a kitchen where they were preparing dinner to eat after sundown.

"The rhythm [of the fast] was broken," said a worn-out looking Zaindi Batishev, 66, stubble covering his sagging cheeks.

The train stopped about three miles away for a few hours, and when officials tried to move it again the refugees stood on the tracks in front of the locomotive.

Russian soldiers fired two bursts from assault rifles above the people's heads, said 25-year-old Ibragim Mensiyev. The track was cleared, but the train did not immediately leave.

Officials had not told all the train dwellers that the cars, sitting on a railway siding in a field, would be moved, refugees said. Some said they were told the train would move only to allow other locomotives to pass.

The Emergency Situations Ministry towed about 36 cars to Chechnya on Saturday afternoon, but only a few refugees accepted the ride, observers from Human Rights Watch said.

The other rail cars were returned to their original spot near the kitchen by Sunday.

Refugees on the train said they don't want to return to Chechnya because they fear partisan fighting in the forests around their towns and because many houses were destroyed as the Russian army rolled over their homeland.

Many also said they fear Russian soldiers who, they claim, beat and sometimes kill civilians and have looted the abandoned towns and villages.

"Even if we return, we have nowhere to go," said Mr. Batishev, 66, standing on the garbage-strewn tracks by the remaining cars. As he spoke, a pair of Russian fighter jets streaked overhead toward Chechnya.

The aid operation for Chechen refugees in overcrowded camps has been haphazard and poorly organized, short on tents and food and long on bureaucratic hassles. American and European leaders have criticized the effort and offered help, but Russia insists it can handle the situation.

Khamzad Bekov of the Emergency Situations Ministry said about 60,000 people who fled from areas now controlled by the Russian military including those who had been living in the train cars are not true refugees.

"We won't support them. They are no longer refugees and should return home," Mr. Bekov said, standing in a crowd of refugees by the train.

Some in the crowd yelled that their homes were destroyed, and that Russian soldiers have looted food stores.

Mr. Bekov said they will be provided with tents and can sleep in abandoned schools and other buildings in Chechnya, then hurried away surrounded by bodyguards.

In another sign of Russian pressure on Chechen refugees, people in the Sputnik camp near the border had been shown a letter signed by five Russian generals explaining which regions in the war-torn republic they claim are safe. Camp officials said people from these regions will no longer be entitled to food rations.

"They want [the refugees] out of sight," said Rachel Denber, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch, who works in camps on the border. "The move did not have the interests of the people in mind."

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