BOMBS SMASHED into a refugee convoy, slaughtering at least 25 civilians and injuring over 150 people. This could have been a scene of horror from NATO's war in the Balkans. But the bombing happened last week - the latest atrocity in Russia's increasingly horrific war against Chechenia. The Red Cross said the refugee convoy was clearly marked and visible from the air. Two Red Cross workers were also killed in the bombing.
For the last two months Russian bombs have been relentlessly pounding Chechenia's capital, Grozny, and other towns and villages across the country. Russia is deliberately copying the tactics NATO used in its bombing of Serbia and Kosovo earlier this year. Like NATO, Russia is attempting to minimise casualties among its own troops by indiscriminately bombing civilian targets.
Two weeks ago Russia bombed a marketplace in Grozny, where hundreds of ordinary people were doing their shopping. The attack mirrored NATO's bombing of Nis market in Serbia. Over 60 people were slaughtered. One eyewitness said, 'I saw a man engulfed in flames running across the market. There are so many corpses and injured.' The same day Russian bombs also hit a nearby maternity hospital and a mosque, killing even more. The wounded lay in pools of blood and dirt in Grozny's central hospital, where facilities have been devastated.
Yet, in a series of lies to justify its slaughter, the Russian government claimed the marketplace was an 'arms bazaar'. Like NATO, Russia has bombed bridges, roads, oil refineries and telephone exchanges. Over 40 people were killed in the bombing of a passenger bus. Ordinary civilians face living without electricity and gas, and with scant food supplies. The war has created 200,000 refugees, who have fled the country because of the bombing according to the Red Cross.
The United Nations estimates that one third of Chechenia's population of just over a million have been driven from their homes since the bombing started. The refugees are living in squalid and freezing conditions in makeshift tents. Yet despite the indiscriminate slaughter and the hundreds of thousands of refugees, there has been no outcry from the leaders of the NATO countries.
Western diplomats maintain that the issue is 'an internal matter' for Russia. Russia claims it is fighting a war against Islamic 'terrorists'. But in reality Russia is fighting a war to reassert its dominance in an area which contains the oil fields of the Caspian Sea. A strategic pipeline carrying crude oil from the Caspian runs through Chechenia.
Russia suffered a bloody defeat in its last war on Chechenia, between 1994 and 1996. Over 80,000 people were slaughtered in that war - the vast majority of them civilians. But Chechen resistance humiliated the Russian army and Chechenia became an 'autonomous republic'. The war also reflects internal power games inside the Russian government. Yeltsin's government has been deeply unpopular, especially since the devastation caused by last year's economic collapse.
Russian rulers' problems also deepened last week when prime minister of Armenia Vazgen Sarkisyan and seven members of the Armenian parliament were gunned down in their parliament. The assassination is likely to add to the growing instability in the Caucasus area of the former Soviet Union.