The mayor of the latest town destroyed by war in Chechnya accused Russian troops Tuesday of systematic looting and arson during a 9-day-old siege that has left at least 26 civilians dead.
Boris Kiev, mayor of Sernovodsk, fled the town Friday after becoming convinced that the Russian army intended to arrest him. He said he swam across the frigid Sunzha River under cover of darkness and turned up here in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
"I feel like a hunted wolf," the 47-year-old mayor said in an interview, nursing a chest cold and sounding bewildered by the convulsion in what was once the quietest corner of Chechnya.
The destruction of the town coincided with last week's deadly rampage by Chechen separatists in Grozny, the Russian-held Chechen capital 30 miles to the east, and underscored the quickening tempo of the 15-month-old war.
Russian officials said the town was harboring hundreds of separatist rebels. The mayor and townspeople insisted that no rebels were there but said some residents fought back with hunting rifles after the assault began March 4.
"Sernovodsk has no strategic importance," the mayor said. "The only purpose of this assault was to steal."
Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, compiled a list of 26 civilians killed and 33 wounded in the town of 31,000 people before the Russians stopped shelling last weekend. Kiev said the toll could run as high as 100 when townspeople recover more bodies from the charred ruins of homes.
At a news conference here, Memorial showed film shot Monday in Sernovodsk of a wailing woman examining a row of seven corpses outside a mosque, in search of her missing son. The mosque and the bodies were charred.
The mayor said more than half the homes in town were destroyed. He also reported seeing Russian soldiers rape a teenage Chechen girl and kill a teenage Chechen boy by tying him to a gasoline-soaked tire and setting it aflame.
There was no corroboration of these charges, but the mayor's assertion about looting and arson was echoed by fleeing townspeople and outsiders who managed to get in.
They said Russian soldiers had gone door to door, shot open locks or smashed windows, loaded armored personnel carriers with household goods, then tossed incendiary bombs to burn down the houses. In many homes that were left standing, people returned to find dishes smashed, mirrors broken, television screens shot out and floors covered with excrement and, in some cases, used syringes.
"It looked like the damage from an earthquake, but it was done by human hands," said Irene Brenzna, a freelance Swiss journalist who walked past a Russian checkpoint posing as a Chechen resident.
Yakha Besiyeva, a 55-year-old milkmaid, said she returned home Tuesday and was asked by a Russian soldier: "Anything left of your house? If so, we will steal it."
But there was nothing, she said, "only the four walls." The rest was burned and her three cows were gone, so she left town again.
Four junior officers manned a Russian barricade on the dirt road to Sernovodsk on Tuesday, turning away journalists and foreign relief workers. They declined to comment on the charges of Russian troop misconduct.