SLEPTSOVSK, Russia -- Russian soldiers snatched Salimkhan Timurziev off the street while he was searchng for his missing brother in the devastated Chechen capital Grozny seven weeks into the Russian war to subdue Chechen separatism. The troops blindfolded and threatened to shoot the 31-year-old builder. Then they whisked him off to their base -- handcuffed as a human shield on top of their armored personnel carrier. There, Timurziev said, he and other detainees were beaten, kicked, punched and poked with rifle butts before being stacked like cordwood in a truck -- hands tied behind backs, face down, row upon row and driven for 1 1/2 harrowing hours to a Russian military base where OMON special forces hold hundreds of men in a makeshift prison rail yard. Those who have emerged from Russian captivity in the city of Mozdok in North Ossetia northwest of the Chechen border, say torture and even summary execution are occurring. 'I lost track of how many people hit me,' said Timurziev, whose forehead is gashed, and whose right eye was red and swollen from a week's punishement. 'We'd ask them why they were doing this and they'd say, 'Our job is to beat people.'' One Chechen man, Isan Mataev, 40, a driver, was captured with a group of civilians on New Year's day when Russian forces entered Grozny. The soliders threatened to smoke them out of their bomb shelter unless they opened the door. The solders let the womem go and piled the men, including ethnic Russians who lived in Grozny, into trucks in the way described by Timurziev.
When men on the bottom started to suffocate, Mataev said, the solders beat and shot those on top, causing a shift in the human cargo to let those below breathe. 'I heard shooting, and one Russian was shouting that they didn't have the right to shoot,' Mataev said. 'I think he was shot, because he wasn't standing among us when we got out at the end.' Mataev said seven or eight men died during the trip, either from suffocation or gunshot wounds. The Human rights issue has been a sore point for the Kremlin ever since troops were sent in Dec. 11. Russian Human Rights Commissioner Sergei Kovalev has alleged rights violations, and the Organization for European Security and Cooperation concluded from a brief trip to the region that rights abuses have occurred on both sides. In Russian cities, OMON has a reputation for brutality and operating on the fringes of the law and for rounding up Caucasus traders, who sell fruit and vegetables at Moscow markets. But the crackdowns have gained favor with many Russians, who harbor prejudices against darker-skinned Caucasus peoples seen as a source of crime and vice. The interior special forces, unlike conscripts in the largerly demoralized army, are usually older, contract soliders. These forces have been seizing Chechens, Ingush and even ethnic Russians in their homes in Grozny and rural villages. 'I think there is a goal to this,' ventured Khisar Vitayev, administrator of the west Chechen village of Syrnovodsk. 'The Chechens have lots of Russian prisoners, but the Russians don't have many Chechens and they need someone to exchange.' Since mid-January, the Russians have detained 45 men from Syrnovodsk and neighboring Assinovskaya. Timurziev, detained Jan. 9 and released Jan. 16, got off easier than some -- with cracked ribs, his face kicked and punched and his right eye puffed up, his body scarred from shallow knife slashes by his OMON handlers. He sleeps sitting in a chair, his ribs are too sore to let him lie down. Conditions in the train cars, he said, were filthy. Prisoners received dried bread and two cups of water each day. At night, prisoners were forced to strip and endure the freezing winter air. Around 100 men were crammed into his train car, Timurziev said, in a camp surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by soldiers with German shepherds. Timurziev said OMON guards kept repeating that Chechens are either criminals or guerrilla fighters supporting Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. During one interrogation, Timurziev was told he could go free if he revealed the names of any 'bandits.' When he said he didn't know any, the interrogator snapped, 'All of you are bandits, and you're telling me you can't name even one.' Chingiskhan Amerkhanov, released with Timurziev, reported being tortured by a masked man who took him away for electric shocks and beatings with truncheons. Amerkhanov, minister of public water works in neighboring Ingushetia, is being treated for a punctured lung and damaged kidneys. Timurziev almost had to carry Amerkhanov, who could barely walk when the Russians freed them at the local train station. Aza Tokhova was with a group of Russian soldiers' mothers searching for their missing sons fighting in Chechnya when they saw Russian security troops detain a group of Chechen refugees at a checkpoint near Samashki, 15 miles (25 km) west of Grozny. Tokhova said masked interior troops searched the refugees for weapons and, finding nothing, forced them to lay face down in a trench filled with icy mud while they called for a helicopter to take them to Mozdok. 'As a woman and a mother I couldn't tolerate that,' Tokhova said. 'I asked why they were treating civilians like that, and a soldiers told me, 'They're not people. We need to exterminate all of them. They're Chechens. Why are you crying for them?'' She said the soldiers brandished their weapons at the women and ordered them off. 'They acted brutally, and they showered us with obscenities,' Tokhova said. 'We said we'll stand and face death, we're your mothers, go ahead and shoot us, but we won't let you take them away.' Finally, the soldiers relented and released the refugees. Many Chechens and Ingush fear another reign of Stalinist brutality is being inflicted upon them. In 1944, Stalin shipped the Ingush and Chechens, accused of sympathizing with the Nazis, off to exile in Siberia and Kazakhstan, where they stayed for 13 years before being allowed to return home. 'I have only one request,' said Vitayev, the village administrator. 'If Russia takes over here, come visit us in the camps.'