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Chechnya: Rebel Offensive Highlights Moscow's Difficulties

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian forces today claim they have re-established control over Chechnya's second-largest town after separatists seized parts of Gudermes yesterday in their biggest attack in months. The separatists also shot down a federal helicopter, killing 10 senior Russian officers, including two generals.

Prague, 18 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian forces in Chechnya were caught off-guard yesterday by coordinated rebel attacks that took the lives of at least 10 senior officers and brought chaos to the republic's second-largest town, Gudermes.

For a time, an estimated 300 rebels succeeded in taking over most of Gudermes, which is home to 40,000 people. Up until that point, the town had remained relatively peaceful.

The raid came as a double embarrassment to Russian forces as Gudermes is the home base of Chechnya's pro-Russian administrator, Akhmad Kadyrov. Kadyrov blamed the attack on Moscow's special forces, saying the rebels had managed to enter the town unchallenged, riding on ordinary buses.

At the same time, two generals and eight colonels -- all from the Russian general staff -- died when rebels shot down their helicopter over the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Russia's top general in the region, Valery Baranov, says his men have restored order and have detained more than 400 people suspecting of helping the rebels in their surprise offensive.

Nevertheless, yesterday's attack again highlights the Russian military's inability to maintain control over territory in its possession. Moscow-based commentator Sanobar Shermatova, who has reported on both Chechen wars for the weekly "Moscow News," sees particular significance in the timing of yesterday's attack.

"A similar upsurge in fighting occurred this past May when the Kremlin announced troop reductions in Chechnya and a partial pullout. Today, we have exactly the same situation. In October, the defense ministry plans to reduce the number of its troops in Chechnya and to send the rest to their barracks."

The May fighting forced Moscow to suspend its withdrawal plans, and yesterday's attack may have the same effect.

While Russia remains bogged down militarily in Chechnya, the Kremlin has intensified its diplomatic offensive, aimed at improving its position in the republic. Kadyrov is due to leave on a tour of the Middle East later today, where he plans to meet leaders of the Arab world.

During his six-day tour, Kadyrov is scheduled to visit Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Moscow's Chechen administrator is expected to be received by Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, King Abdallah and Saddam Hussein. All of the muftis of the Northern Caucasus are accompanying Kadyrov.

Shermatova says Kadyrov will try to convince them to stop all efforts to fund the Chechen rebels:

"I think this is about ensuring that the rebels do not receive help from the Middle East. Money coming from there either will have to be sent to the [Moscow-backed] Chechen authorities, or the money will have to go directly to Chechen civilians. The money must not make it into the hands of the rebels through underground channels. That's Kadyrov's task, but whether he succeeds -- that's another matter altogether."

Shermatova says Kadyrov may also have another aim:

"Many Arab countries owe a lot of money to the former Soviet Union -- state debt. It's possible that Kadyrov will be able to reach agreement with the leaders of several Arab countries to have the debt returned to Russia so the money could be used to rebuild the Chechen economy."

Russian politicians have been playing up what they allege is a connection between Afghan-based terrorist Osama bin Laden and the Chechen rebels, especially in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States. The ITAR-TASS news agency yesterday quoted a spokesman for the Federal Security Service (FSB) who said computer disks with technical data on the U.S.-designed Boeing 737 had been seized in a Chechen arms dump, along with fundamentalist literature.

But so far, no such proof has been made available to the media. Shermatova:

"They tell us that Chechnya is a center of international terrorism, but we haven't seen any facts to prove this. The Chechen problem was created in Russia -- it's a domestic problem. This problem must be resolved by Russia, and pointing to the fact that buildings were destroyed in New York and Washington, I think, has no relation to Chechnya."

The world's attention may now have shifted away from Russia's troubled Caucasus republic, but it does not appear that Moscow will have an easier time finding a resolution to its troubles there.