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Russia: Simmering Conflict With Chechnya May Erupt

The Islamist militants who have been raiding villages in the Russian republic of Dagestan for the past month are led by rebel Chechens. Russia has retaliated by bombing villages in Chechnya. In an analysis from Moscow, RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that Russia and Chechnya may be rekindling the bloody war that resulted in Chechen independence three years ago.

Moscow, 10 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian bombs are falling on Chechen villages once again. Relations between Moscow and Grozny are brittle, and the conflict that gave Chechnya de facto independence is on the brink of starting again.

Last weekend, the Russian military began air strikes against Chechen villages. RFE/RL's correspondent in Grozny, Khasin Raduyev, reports that bombs have hit at least four districts in Chechnya. One raid hit a mosque and shops in the town of Zama-Yurt, killing 26 civilians.

Russia says it is aiming to destroy terrorist hide-outs. Chechnya, for its part, denies that it is aiding the militants. Since the beginning of August, when the first raids on Dagestan took place, the Chechen government has said it is not involved with the radical, Chechen-led guerrillas. In a demonstrative gesture, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov sacked a Chechen official who voiced support for the Islamist militants.

Even before this outbreak of violence, tension had been simmering between Russia and Chechnya over the uncertainty of Chechnya's status. The peace agreement three years ago left Chechnya not quite a country and not quite a Russian republic. Leaving the issue unsettled was the only way to stop the fighting, which had killed approximately 50,000 people. A final determination on Chechnya's status was to be deferred until 2001.

Relations after the peace agreement soon deteriorated to Cold War-like tensions. President Maskhadov proved to be powerless to prevent widespread crime in Chechnya, including the kidnappings of more than a thousand Russians and foreigners since 1997. A top Russian Interior Ministry official is a current hostage, held for the past seven months by thugs who demand millions of dollars in ransom.

Grozny also has a long list of grievances against Moscow, accusing it of violating its economic commitments. Moscow did not deliver the more than $120 million it had pledged to rebuild Chechnya's destroyed economy. Last spring, Grozny interrupted an oil pipeline to Russia, forcing Moscow to pay $6.5 million owed for the pipeline's rental.

Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin told RFE/RL that if the military knew where the terrorist hide-outs were, it wouldn't be bombing villages. In his words, "The hits [on villages] have no effect. They only provoke people's lust for revenge." Rybkin says Russia should abide by the 1996 agreement that ended the fighting.

For the moment, Grozny is limiting itself to verbal attacks. But its statements are growing increasingly warlike. First Prime Minister Ruslan Gelayev said this week Chechnya's response to the attacks on its residential areas will be "very concrete and very tough." The Chechen Parliament has termed the bombings an "unjustifiable aggression." And yesterday, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov warned that, in his words, "thoughtless actions by Russian generals may become fatal for Chechen-Russian relations."