Bombs and death squads in Russia's 'forgotten' war

By Fred Weir in Moscow
24 June 2003

To hear President Vladimir Putin tell it, Russia's
long and bloody conflict in the breakaway republic of
Chechnya is over and almost forgotten.

"We have recently approved a whole series of measures
for Chechnya," Mr Putin told a press conference at the
Kremlin last Friday. "This is very important to have
the Chechen people themselves take over the
responsibility for law and order in the republic." But
even as he spoke, a powerful lorry bomb exploded
outside a pro-Moscow Chechen government complex in the
republic's capital, Grozny, wounding 38 people.

Now well into its fourth year, the war in the mainly
Muslim region continues to kill at least a dozen
Russian soldiers a week. Human rights groups allege
that Russian security forces have been employing
terror tactics in their drive to compel Chechens to
accept Moscow's peace terms, including the use of
death squads to eliminate even moderate Chechen

Since the weekend, eight Russian servicemen and three
pro-Moscow Chechen policemen have been killed in rebel
attacks. A bodyguard of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen
leader who was appointed by the Kremlin, was shot dead
in Grozny on Sunday night.

Officially, some 5,000 Russian troops have died in the
current war, which began in October 1999 after Mr
Putin, who was Prime Minister at the time, swore to
avenge 300 Russians who died in an as-yet unsolved
series of bombings in Russian cities. But the
independent Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which
works closely with the families of drafted youths,
puts Russian casualty figures in the current war at
11,000 dead and more than 30,000 wounded.

The number of civilian deaths is unknown, but is
estimated to be in the tens of thousands. About
200,000 Chechens, about a third of the republic's
population, continue to live as refugees in
neighbouring republics.

This is the second post-Soviet war aimed at putting
down a secessionist rebellion. The Defence Ministry
says 5,500 Russians died in the first war, from 1994
to 1996, but the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers says
the number is more like 14,000. Alexander Lebed, a
former Russian general who negotiated the treaty
ending the first Chechen war, estimated the civilian
dead in that conflict at upwards of 80,000. About
15,000 Soviet troops died during the nine-year
intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In recent months the Kremlin has implemented a "peace
process" aimed at reintegrating Chechnya into Russia
and turning over most law-and-order functions -
including fighting the rebels - to an 11,000-strong
Chechen militia. In March about 80 per cent of
Chechens voted in a referendum organised by the
Kremlin to adopt a new constitution, which grants the
republic limited autonomy but cements it as Russian
territory. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist
who has covered both sides of the Chechnya war, said:
"People were promised that if they vote for the new
constitution, their relatives who had been seized in
security sweeps would be returned to them. But nothing
of the kind has happened."


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