- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

MOSCOW Independent media yesterday reported death tolls from the fighting in Chechnya several times higher than the figures released by the military, raising suspicions of a deliberate campaign to underreport Russian casualties.
The estimates of Russian war dead ranged as high as 5,000 reported by NTV, a commercial television station that broadcast footage from the site of a hospital that handles many of the bodies before sending them home in night trains.
At the low end, the independent Interfax news agency quoted security sources as saying 926 had been killed and 2,432 wounded, with 529 killed in the last month alone. That figure is double the official tally for the war and several times higher than official figures for the past month.
"The situation [in the Chechen capital, Grozny,] is far from the one painted by the military reports," said Malik Saidullayev, a prominent Chechen businessman loyal to Moscow. He said acting President Vladimir Putin "should double-check the reports because they are 70 percent untrue."
After almost a month of humiliating military setbacks, the Russians appeared last week to have cracked the Chechen defenses, opening the way for special forces to seize the capital.
Upbeat Russian generals crowed that Grozny would fall in a matter of days, and the Russian news agency Itar-Tass echoed their confidence. With Western journalists blocked from entering Chechnya, the foreign wire services had little choice but to follow.
But it became clear on the weekend that the battle is far from over. With an estimated 2,000 rebels in the capital, the Chechens are showing their determination to make the Russians pay a massive price in bitter hand-to-hand fighting.
Tough fighting continued in Grozny yesterday, with reports saying the rebels had attacked federal forces in two regions south of the capital.
Interfax reported skirmishes all around the city, with the heaviest fighting in the district around rebel-held Minutka Square in central Grozny. The square leads to a strategic bridge over the Sunzha River, which the Russians seized last week.
A spokesman for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said the worst fighting was on the eastern front of the city. But he insisted the biggest battles were outside Grozny proper, between the Khankala suburb and the Michurin settlement to the city's east.
On Sunday, the Russians said they had recovered the body of Gen. Maj. Mikhail Malofeyev, who disappeared in Grozny last week. The rebels claimed they had captured him, but it now appears he died of wounds sustained while leading his men out of an ambush.
Interfax reported yesterday that more than 30 Russian troops had been killed and about 70 wounded over the weekend. That compares with an official military tally of five killed and 11 wounded as reported by Itar-Tass. It said close to 80 rebels were killed.
The open contradictions, which follow weeks in which the media had slavishly published the official death tolls, are feeding a growing skepticism about the accuracy of the military casualty tallies.
The Soldiers Mothers' Committee, which came to prominence during the 1994-96 Chechen war, estimated yesterday, based on reports from its regional members, that 3,000 Russian servicemen had been killed, compared with the approximately 800 the government has reported.
"We are inclined to believe what we find ourselves," said Valentina Melnikova, a committee spokeswoman, on Echo of Moscow radio. "We don't know what methods the military uses. It's on their conscience."
NTV television cited the 3,000 figure but went even further than that, saying it believes the true figure is closer to 5,000.
The station carried a report from Rostov-on-Don, a town in southern Russia housing a hospital where war dead are brought, in which officials said as many as 30 bodies a day were brought to its morgue and sent out on night trains.
Interfax based its report of 926 dead on information from unnamed security forces. And another report attributed to "informed sources" in the defense establishment said 1,152 had been killed and 3,246 wounded since August.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, speaking in the Estonian capital Tallinn, warned again yesterday that the war threatens to disrupt Russia's democratic progress and its place in international affairs.
"The horror unfolding there is a threat to the evolution of both Russia's domestic order and its international role," he said.

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