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Russia: Army Testing New Equipment In Chechnya

Russia's Defense Ministry has admitted the army is testing new military equipment and weaponry in Chechnya, where federal forces have been battling separatist militants for more than five years. Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Belousov says some of the weapons that have been tested will enter mass production this year. Russian military analysts say the admission comes as little surprise.

Prague, 17 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Belousov told ITAR-TASS news agency on 30 January that a sniper rifle, machine gun, and several night-vision devices are among the items that have already been tested and put into production.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst based in Moscow, said it has been known for some time that the Russian military has been testing conventional weaponry as part of its operations in Chechnya. He said the practice is permissible as long as the weapons being tested are legal.

"I think nobody had any doubts [that weaponry is being tested in Chechnya]," Felgenhauer said. "Officially they say that there are no big battles under way there, but more serious weaponry is being tested there."

Felgenhauer said the Russian military tested new Black Shark helicopters in Chechnya, but found them inferior. Instead, the Defense Minister has decided to produce a different model -- the Mi-28 Havoc.

The analyst said that generally, however, it is difficult to gauge what types of weaponry are being tested, because the military only brings in a few prototypes of each model.

"The problem is that only several samples are brought in," Felgenhauer said. "They are tested and some turn out to be better, some worse. But on the whole, our soldiers -- both from the Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry, as well as those reporting to other agencies -- are armed very poorly."

The problem with Russia's weapons, Felgenhauer said, is not that they are poorly designed, but that they are simply outdated. Chechen fighters often carry the same equipment as federal troops. In some instances -- particularly with communication devices -- the Chechens are even better equipped.

Felgenhauer said that most Russian troops are so poorly trained they would be unable to use more up-to-date equipment even if it was available.
The Russian military tested new Black Shark helicopters in Chechnya.

Not everyone is so sanguine about the Defense Ministry's actions.

Oleg Pamfilov, heads of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a rights group run under the auspices of the Russian Journalists' Union, said that Belousov's statements, while not surprising, are shocking because Moscow has never been officially at war with Chechnya, which is formally Russian territory.

"It is an outrageous statement because firstly, neither of the [Russian] presidents -- Yeltsin or Putin -- declared a war," Pamfilov said.

Usam Baysayev, who works for Russia's Memorial human rights center in Ingushetia, an autonomous republic bordering Chechnya, said he has also heard about the Defense Ministry testing, but added that the real outrage is the continued bloodshed -- not which weapons are being used.

"[A country] should not use weapons -- either old or new -- against its own citizens," Baysayev said. "It doesn’t make any difference [whether the weapons are old or new], and it doesn't seem to be normal."

The current conflict is the second of its kind in the past decade. Thousands of civilians have been killed over that time, and at least 4,500 Russian servicemen are known to have lost their lives.

Neither death count has ever been officially verified. Observers say the real numbers could be much higher.

(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)

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