The government that Moscow has installed in Chechnya admitted yesterday that there were more than 50 mass graves on its territory. It said that up to 60,000 people had lost a relative or friend in the disappearances that have blighted the republic for the past five years.
Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, the chairman of the Chechen government committee for civil rights, said most of the dead were civilians killed in the past five years, many the victims of Russian military operations.
His admission implicates Russian federal troops in the death of possibly thousands of Chechen civilians during "anti-terrorist operations" aimed at flushing separatists and Islamic fundamentalists out of the province.
"All this is a sad fact," he told a meeting of the Chechen state council, adding that the authorities were aware of 52 mass graves in the republic's territory.
He said the figure had been compiled with the help of police and non-governmental organisations. "Along with the lists of the disappeared we also have this sad figure of the mass graves that we must, as is done in the civilised world, exhume and begin to identify."
Mr Nukhazhiyev also told Interfax that up to 60,000 people in the republic knew or were related to someone who had been abducted.
He said the government thought there were "many dead" in the graves, but that only their exhumation would provide a precise figure. Mr Nukhazhiyev said the dead were "mostly peaceful citizens" killed between 1999 and the present day. The second Chechen war started in 1999 when Russian forces invaded the republic, ending a brief period of chaotic de facto independence from Moscow.
"Many died just in front of their houses," Mr Nukhazhiyev said.
Alu Alkhanov, the republic's president, said recently that 5% to 10% of abductions in the republic had been carried out by federal forces.
Analysts said local officials often resorted to blaming Russian troops for violence in Chechnya to boost their own position.
"When they say such things, they speak the truth," said Oleg Orlov of the human rights group Memorial. "The only thing they don't say is that the Chechen law enforcement are also violating rights, and just as seriously."
He added: "Their idea is that, if federal forces are seen to be violating rights - and they are - the solution will be to transfer all powers to local Chechen enforcement bodies."
Mr Orlov said a recent agreement on the division of powers between Moscow and the republic had not given local authorities the ultimate control over federal forces they had sought.
He added that the comments were a "rear-guard action to conserve as many powers as is possible", and to appeal to the electorate before the parliamentary elections, scheduled for some time around November.