Six staff shot dead in Red Cross hospital

 

MASKED gunmen deliberately targeted four nurses and two other staff shot dead in their beds at a Red Cross hospital in Chechnya yesterday, the Moscow head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Mr Thierry Meyrat dismissed suggestions that the five women and one man were gunned down in their beds as part of a bungled robbery in the complex in Novy Atagi, a town 20 km south of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

"There are so few foreigners in Chechnya. If you are hoping to create an international stir, they are the ones you have to hit," Mr Meyrat told a press conference in Moscow.

Following the incident, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in Geneva that it was suspending its activities in the breakaway republic.

The identities of the six were given as a Dutch builder, Mr Hans Elkerbout; Norwegian nurses, Ms Ingeborg Foss and Ms Grunnhild Myklebust; a Canadian medical administrator, Ms Nancy Malloy; a New Zealand nurse, Ms Sheryl Taylor, and a Spanish nurse, Ms Fernanda Calado.

Mr Meyrat said the bodies had been found in different rooms, the doors had been forced and the victims shot at close range.

The killings were a "deliberate assassination", he said, but added he had no further idea why the group had been targeted in an attack which seemed to have been carried out with guns fitted with silencers.

"Chechnya is one of the conflicts where humanitarian officials are not respected and we have already been targeted by kidnappers, but this affair is of a different nature," he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been working in Chechnya since Moscow sent in its forces in December 1994 to crush the Chechen independence drive.

The deputy interior minister of the temporary Chechen government, Mr Vakha Zakriev said earlier the attack was a "provocation" aimed at torpedoing the presidential elections due in the north Caucasus republic on January 27th.

Mr Meyrat said in Moscow the ICRC had known of indirect threats against international organisations", but security measures had concentrated on workers' travel arrangements.

"This incident is one of the worst in the history of the ICRC: we had three killed in Burundi a few months ago, but six killed in one incident has never happened before," he said.

A Kremlin spokesman, Mr Sergei Yastrzhembsky, condemned the killings but said they should not be allowed to undermine the peace agreement between Russia and the Chechen secessionists signed on August 31st.

In Grozny, the authorities are hunting suspects in the murders, the Chechen national security chief, Mr Abu Movsayev said.

"There are suspects, the security forces are in the process of mounting an operation to arrest them."

"Before these murders, we had received information that the Russian secret services were planning sabotage operations," he said, without specifying what connection that had with the attack.

"We took measures, notably in protecting offices of the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe] and other important sites."

. The Irish Red Cross Society said its two aid workers in Chechnya - Mr Bernard Markey from Meath and Mr Tom Daly from Limerick - were safe. The IRCS secretary general, Mr Martin Good, said the society was extremely distressed by the murders and condemned "this brutal attack and the violation of the Red Cross emblem".