KHANKALA - Russia officials in Chechnya said Sunday that dozens of bodies have been discovered in a mass grave on the outskirts of the capital Grozny.
"There are at least 11 (bodies), but we cannot be more precise because we think the bodies are mined so we are approaching this slowly," a Russian prosecutor's office official in Chechnya told reporters by telephone.
The Interfax news agency earlier reported that at least three bodies have already been identified -- including that of a 16-year-old boy who according the report went missing in December last year.
Chechen sources were not immediately available for comment Sunday but rebel administration officials alleged Saturday that the victims were Chechen civilians who were rounded up and shot by the Russian troops.
The mass grave was discovered on the southeastern outskirts of Grozny near the Russian military headquarters stationed in the suburb of Khankala.
Initial Russian news agency reports of the mass grave Saturday said the discovered bodies were those of Chechen fighters killed when Russian troops took the city in February 2000.
Later reports said the dead appeared to have been killed at different dates. They said the grave initially came to light when local people dug up some bodies early last week.
"The people were killed at different periods; the bodies frozen in a semi-decomposed state were discovered in a pile," said the Rusian military statement, citing preliminary autopsies.
Russian military officials on Sunday however claimed that all the dead were victims of the Chechen fighters themselves.
"They were killed by rebels at different times," Vsevolod Chernov of the Russian administration in Chechnya told Interfax.
Chechen officials meanwhile said that local people had suspected the existence of the grave for some time but had not dared go there because it was less than a kilometer (a mile) from the Russian Khankala military base.
Chechen rebels abandoned the defense of Grozny in February last year after seven weeks of bloody clashes in which 368 Russian soldiers were killed and another 1,469 wounded.
The Russian military at the time said they had killed some 1,500 Chechen fighters as they tried to leave the city.
Russia's human rights record in Chechnya has drawn concern from Western officials.
The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles, is to visit Chechnya next week to assess the current human rights situation there.