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Russia: Putin Shifts Chechen Command To FSB

Moscow, 22 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin today transferred responsibility for military operations in Chechnya to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. Putin told top ministers today that he was putting FSB director Nikolai Patrushev in charge of what Putin called an "anti-terrorist" operation in Chechnya. Putin said this means that Russia will now use what he called "other means" to oppose separatist rebels in the breakaway republic.

"The counter-terrorism operation will be continued with special forces and means, mainly with the introduction of FSB forces, of the Interior Ministry, and special units of the Defense Ministry."

A spokesman for the FSB (Alexander Zdanovich) told reporters the move was prompted by a change in tactics by Chechen fighters. He says fighters are now working in smaller, more mobile units:

"In the present situation, [the rebels] are acting in smaller groups and have largely gone over to tactics like setting up land mines or [committing] individual acts of terrorism. So, of course, we need to reorganize our tactics and act along this line. I must say that our special forces and means in Chechnya from the FSB will not only not be reduced, but will be reinforced."

The change in command is expected to lead to a reduction in the number of regular Interior Ministry and regular army troops deployed in the province. The number of FSB troops will increase.

Putin's spokesman for Chechen affairs, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said that under the new plan, Patrushev would oversee the operations in Chechnya, replacing Igor Sergeyev, the defense minister and former chief of the united command. Patrushev's regional operational headquarters will be headed by a deputy FSB director and will include civilian representatives of Russian regions bordering Chechnya.

The direct command of the united troops, overseeing troops of the Interior and Defense ministries and the FSB -- now under General Valery Baranov -- will stay in place. Baranov, who had earlier been critical of Russian plans to reduce the number of troops in Chechnya, will now report to the FSB-controlled regional command.

The deputy head of the Chief of Staff, Yury Baluevsky, told our correspondent today that the reform was timely. He said that the command structure may be changed as the situation evolves.

Baluyevsky said that about 40,000 Russian military and law-enforcement troops are serving in Chechnya, but other estimates put the number as high as 80,000. Baluyevsky said they are fighting 1,000 rebels remaining from about 20,000 a year ago. These figures are often contradicted by rebel and other sources.

Officially, 2,700 Russian soldiers, policemen, and other law-enforcement representatives have been killed, although authorities regularly deny reports of major battles and losses.

Yury Gladkevich, a military analyst for the private Russian Military News Agency, today assessed the reform. He said the transfer of authority away from the army and toward the FSB could signal an intention to move from a false counter-terrorist operation to a what he called a "real" counter-terrorist operation.

Human rights groups have often criticized Russian authorities for using the term counter-terrorist operation as a cover for running a full-fledged war against civilians.