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Friendly Fire Trial of OMON Officers Opens

: Artyom Vernidoub  

This week the trial of three Interior Ministry officers opens in Moscow. They stand accused of criminal negligence that resulted in a unit of crack interior ministry troops (OMON in Russian) from Podolsk, opening fire on an OMON unit from Sergiyev Posad, who had arrived in Chechnya to replace them. The trial opened on Monday, January 14, however, one of the defendants failed to appear pleading sickness, so the court adjourned until January 18.

22 troops of the OMON unit from Sergiyev Posad, near Moscow, were killed and 31 injured in the vicinity of the Chechen capital of Grozny on March 2, 2000 by OMON troops from Podolsk, as a result of a disastrous lack of coordination by Interior Ministry superior officers.

Immediately after the appalling gaff, the Interior Ministry officers reported that the convoy was ambushed by unidentified Chechen rebels, who managed to flee by planting booby-traps along their escape route.

The incident took place three weeks before the presidential elections thus the authorities did not want any bad news from Chechnya to hit the headlines.

Independent journalists, however, managed uncover the truth about the tragic incident and eventually the authorities were forced to admit the gross error.

This week three Interior Ministry officials, allegedly responsible for the friendly-fire attack, went on trial in Moscow.

Former deputy head of the Moscow Region Interior Ministry department Major-General Boris Fadeyev, former commander of the Podolsk OMON special task force Major Igor Tikhonov and former head of the command group of the Interior Ministry's force in Chechnya, Colonel Mikhail Levchenko stand accused of criminal negligence resulting in grave consequences.

After the investigation into the deaths of the Sergiyev Posad OMON troops was completed, the case was forwarded to the Starypromyslovsky district court of Chechnya. However, since the judicial system in Chechnya is anything but functioning normally, it was decided that the trial be held in a Moscow regional court.

On Monday January 14, hearings were due to begin in a Moscow court but one of the defendants the former commander of the Podolsk OMON unit Major Igor Tikhonov failed to appear, pleading sickness.

During the investigation the North-Caucasian department of the Prosecutor Generals Office established that the OMON unit from Podolsk, which at the time of the incident was stationed near Grozny, had attacked the OMON unit from Sergiyev Pasad.

The three above-mentioned Interior Ministry officers were charged, but released on bail under a travel ban. All three have claimed that they are not responsible for the deaths.

In the course of investigation into the attack on the Sergiyev Posad OMON unit, the prosecutors opened a criminal case against Chechen rebels who allegedly responsible. However, not a single Chechen was apprehended and charged in the framework of that case. Hence, the prosecutors have failed to establish whether Chechen rebels also attacked the OMON from Sergiyev Posad.

Back in 2000, the funeral of OMON policemen in their hometown of Sergiyev Posad near Moscow shocked Russia. With only three weeks before the presidential elections, the public had become accustomed to news reports claiming successive victories in the military campaign against the Chechen separatists.

The then-Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo attended the funeral of the slain OMON troops and vowed that those responsible for their deaths would be captured and brought to justice at any cost. Rushailo added that any Interior Ministry superiors responsible would also be punished.

The then-acting president Vladimir Putin was even more implicit about the culpability of Interior Ministry officers. Even the (Chechen) bandits do not move around without reconnaissance, he noted.

In the days following the funeral, reports emerged that three rebels allegedly involved in the attack had been charged with murder. Foreign journalists received video footage of the attack on the convoy of the Sergiyev Posad OMON unit, allegedly made by the rebels in order to report their exploits to their higher command.

But later the detained rebels were discharged, prompting the foreign journalists to presume the military had provided them with footage of a different ambush.

A month after the tragedy the Novaya Gazeta newspaper published a report alleging that Sergiyev Posad OMON policemen were in fact killed by their colleagues from Podolsk. Major Izmailov, citing military personnel in Chechnya, provided the paper with evidence that the slain Sergiyev Posad OMON troops had in fact fallen victim to friendly fire.

The report caused uproar in the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russia parliament, and the deputies called upon a senior Interior Ministry consultant Yuri Mikhailov to comment.

The senior Interior Ministry official angrily refuted Major Izmailovs allegations. The Regional Interior Ministry department, stationed not far from where that clash took place, knew of the arriving convoy, and there is no way that there could have been any mistake The convoy had clear signals indicating it belonged to the federal forces. The military prosecutors office conducted a check into the commands actions. As a result of that check it was decided against instigating criminal proceedings against officials The only thing that let them down (OMON) is that they had almost reached their destination That caused them to drop their guard.

Mikhailov also pointed out that the convoy was attacked not from reinforced positions, but in an ambush from behind walls and from a courtyard of house where a local mullah lived.

But the attempts by the Interior Ministrys superiors to vindicate its officers failed. In March 2001 the State Duma received a report signed by Russias Prosecutor General, Vladimir Ustinov.

The report said that on March 1, 2000, Interior Ministry chiefs in the Staropromyslovsky district of Grozny received a reconnaissance report warning that a convoy carrying unidentified armed men claiming to belong to Gantamirovs militia (a pro-federal force of Chechen volunteers) was approaching the city.

To apprehend and disarm the group policemen and servicemen from the military commandants office hid in courtyards of houses in the village of Podgornoye in the vicinity of checkpoint No. 53 (the checkpoint where the OMON unit from Podolsk was stationed), the report said.

On March 2, 2000 the OMON convoy from Sergiyev Posad came under fire. The Staropromyslovksy district officers Asakayev, Umarov and Dakayev opened fire at the leading truck after the convoy did not stop at checkpoint No.53, the report read. The Sergiyev Posad unit fired back, whereupon the Podolsk OMON opened fire upon the convoy.

On January 18 the trial is to re-open. The trial is unprecedented as it is the first trial in post-Soviet Russian history of high-ranking servicemen charged with making an error leading to multiple deaths. However, such incidents have not been rare during the two military campaigns in Chechnya.

16 16:05


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