Six Red Cross workers slain in Chechnya
NOVYE ATAGI, Russia (AP) _ Gunmen shot and killed six Red Cross workers in their beds this morning at a hospital compound in Chechnya in the worst single attack directed at the 133-year-old humanitarian agency.
Five women and a man working in a hospital died in the attack in the breakaway southern republic, where the Red Cross had reduced its staff earlier because of security concerns. The workers were shot in their sleep.
``The people who did it knew exactly what they were doing. Nothing was stolen,″ said Kim Gordon-Bates of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.
The unidentified killers broke into the Red Cross compound at Novye Atagi, 11 miles southwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital, he said.
The dead were all Red Cross delegates, the agency’s top field rank. They were a Dutch man and five women: two Norwegian nurses, a New Zealander, a Spaniard and a Canadian, Nancy Malloy of Vancouver.
The attackers also shot and seriously wounded a Swiss delegate in charge of the Novye Atagi office. The German Red Cross said three of its people, a doctor and two X-ray technicians asleep in a nearby building, were unharmed.
The Red Cross suspended all operations in Chechnya and was evacuating the rest of its staff to Nalchik.
Gordon-Bates called it the deadliest attack ever against Red Cross delegates in the agency’s history, although 15 Red Cross workers of various ranks were killed in separate attacks in Somalia in 1992. Eleven of those were Somalis who died on one day in a battle linked to clan feuding.
Chechnya’s tense four-month peace accord has been punctuated by sporadic clashes, but today’s attack was the worst against foreigners since the Chechen war began in December 1994.
``Was it purely criminal? Was it political? ICRC has decided to freeze operations in Chechnya until we have precise information on the reasons behind it,″ said Bertrand Kern, deputy director of the Red Cross delegation in Moscow.
He said the Red Cross had just reduced its staff in Chechnya earlier this month because of security concerns, and there were 16 expatriate workers at the hospital compound before this attack. Forty patients were in the hospital today when the shootings occurred.
In late November, a Red Cross worker in Grozny was briefly abducted and then released. The hospital earlier had been robbed.
Tensions rose in recent days when a group of Chechens trying to cross the border took 22 Russian troops hostage. Negotiations were under way today for their release.
The Chechen separatists now effectively control the republic, in the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia, and the last Russian troops are withdrawing.
Continuing sporadic violence often is blamed on rogue field commanders or bandits.
Ruslan Kutayev, a Chechen government minister, told the Interfax news agency the killings were ``an intentional and planned provocation aimed at foiling″ presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for Chechnya next month.
Russia’s national security chief, Ivan Rybkin, arrived in Chechnya today to discuss the peace settlement. He condemned the killings of the Red Cross workers and said Chechen authorities must take tougher measures to prevent such acts, Interfax said.
A few hundred people gathered outside the hospital compound’s fence this morning after hearing of the killings, and the hospital was surrounded by Interior Ministry troops. Local officials refused to comment.
Construction had been in progress to expand the hospital to 200 beds.
``We saw the medical system in the republic was so badly damaged and there was a need for an alternative medical structure,″ said Kern. ``Until we can be assured that the ICRC will be respected, we are suspending our activities in Chechnya.″
The Red Cross opened the hospital, its only one in Chechnya, in September.