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|No End in Sight to War in Chechnya|
|09/26/02 at 09:18:21|
No End in Sight to War in Chechnya
Mon Sep 16, 9:35 AM ET
By SARAH KARUSH, Associated Press Writer
MOSCOW (AP) - As the war in Chechnya ( news - web sites) enters its fourth year, little has changed in the conflict except the steadily rising Russian death toll.
While Moscow has long held nominal control over most of Chechnya, it has failed to restore the rule of law. It refuses to negotiate with the rebels on their independence demands, and now the military wants to widen the war by going after Chechen rebels in neighboring Georgia.
"The tragedy is that the federal government with its policies has reached a dead end and can't back down," said Dzhabrail Gakayev, a Chechen historian and prominent member of Moscow's Chechen community.
Last month's downing by rebels of a military helicopter, in which 119 people were killed, highlighted Russia's vulnerability. Intense clashes lasting several days have erupted throughout the region this summer, along with hit-and-run attacks and land mines. Sometimes a dozen Russians die in a single day.
On Monday, a bus exploded on a mine in the Chechen capital, Grozny, killing at least eight people — including a child — and wounding at least 20, according to Russian news agencies. Investigators suspect that two explosions occurred simultaneously, ITAR-Tass said, citing Chechen police.
The explosive was hidden on the side of the road, the Interfax news agency said.
Officials in Moscow could not immediately confirm the report.
The stepped-up attacks appear to be an effort by rebel President Aslan Maskhadov to force the Kremlin into talks. Analysts say Maskhadov coordinates the actions of many, though not all, of the motley rebel bands. His envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, and Ivan Rybkin, a former chief of Russia's Security Council, met last month in an attempt to prod the government into negotiations.
But Russian officials consider Maskhadov a criminal unfit to hold power. President Vladimir Putin ( news - web sites) has insisted that the only issue open to negotiation is the disarming of the rebels. The rebels look willing and able to fight on indefinitely.
"It's inevitable that Chechnya will be independent. It's just a problem of how long the war will continue," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst. "In a year or two, Russia will totally run out of resources to fight this war and will have to withdraw."
Russians have been at odds with the Chechens since czarist times. After World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported them en masse to the Kazakh steppe, falsely accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and fearful that separatist movements would crumble its frontiers, the Kremlin sent the military into the poor, Connecticut-sized territory of more than a million people, mostly Muslims. A three-year war ensued to rein in Chechen separatists. The military returned in September 1999, this time aiming to quell rampant crime and extremism that threatened to spread into Russia.
Since then, 4,405 Russian servicemen have been killed and 12,530 wounded, not including the helicopter crash victims, according to official figures cited by the Interfax news agency this month. There are no reliable figures for casualties among rebels or civilians, though human rights organizations say thousands of Chechen noncombatants have died.
Suspicious that the rebels are aided by the local population, many servicemen make no distinction between fighters and civilians.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said this spring that it had documented 80 disappearances of Chechen civilians in 2001 alone. In one case described as typical, masked men burst into a villager's home, accusing him of being a rebel. They threw him into a jeep and his family hasn't heard from him since.
Such abuses swell the rebel ranks, says historian Gakayev.
A minority of the militants are fighting for independence or radical Islam, but most "took up arms because of the havoc that federal forces created there," he said. "This is a real war of vengeance."
The Russian military, meanwhile, feels little public pressure to withdraw.
In contrast to the previous war in Chechnya, this one has failed to evoke indignation among Russians. The public seldom hears the bad news from Chechnya, Russian losses aren't regularly disclosed and major media report only the deadliest attacks. The government makes it virtually impossible for journalists to work in Chechnya except in close coordination with the military. The media are banned from reporting interviews with rebels.
Now the military seems eager to open a new front — in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, just over the border from Chechnya. Russia says Georgian authorities have let rebels shelter in the gorge and cross back into Chechnya unimpeded. Georgia sent troops after them, but Russian politicians express doubt that it can root out the rebels.
Georgian officials have rejected Russian offers of help and have accused Moscow of bombing villages in the gorge, killing a civilian. Russia denies it.
Meanwhile, Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed administration says it is planning for a constitutional referendum early next year to pave the way for elections of a president and parliament.
But Aslambek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in the Russian parliament, maintains that real peace must come before elections. He is promoting a plan for negotiations between the rebels and Chechen community leaders who have managed to remain above the fray. Ultimately, Chechnya should be given a special status within Russia, he said.
"To even talk about holding elections now is to show disrespect to the unfortunate people who are suffering, who every day are searching for their children," Aslakhanov said. "We need peace first, so that people can move freely and the media can work without censorship of the truth."
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