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Russia: Conflict In Chechnya Drags On

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the storming of the Chechen capital Grozny by Chechen separatists -- a significant date in their first war with Russian forces. Russian authorities have been saying for months that the current war is winding down, but the sealing of Grozny by Russian forces and casualties inflicted on Russian troops ahead of the anniversary suggest the conflict is far from over. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports.

Prague, 6 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Just three months after Vladimir Putin, then Russian prime minister, ordered troops back into Chechnya in the summer of 1999, he claimed the end of the war was in sight.

Russian authorities have been saying the same thing, intermittently, ever since.

But the heightened tensions surrounding today's anniversary of the 1996 storming of Grozny by Chechen separatists are a timely reminder that the region looks nothing like returning to normalcy. The anniversary marks the day when Chechen separatists stormed into Grozny, seizing key buildings in the Chechen capital in their biggest offensive against Russian troops since a peace agreement in May that year.

In the battle for the capital that ensued, some 2,000 federal troops were reported killed, wounded, or missing. It was the beginning of the end of the 1994-1996 war. Within months, Russian forces were pulling out and a peace deal was signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov.

Russian authorities tightened security in the region in the run-up to this year's anniversary, halting all traffic in and out of Grozny. Russian authorities warned of the possibility of a separatist assault to mark the day and Russian NTV reported rumors swirling in Grozny of an imminent attack by separatist fighters.

But Aleksandr Cherkasov at the Memorial human rights group in Moscow says the publicity surrounding the anniversary serves just one purpose -- to give the Russian authorities an excuse to tighten security.

"These latest statements -- that the anniversary of the storming of Grozny by Chechens will bring some new action, almost a new storm of the city -- are not very well-founded. Since 1995, more than once the federal authorities have said at some specific date that some decisive offensive is expected. And every time, nothing other than tighter security, blockades of road movement, has happened."

Local officials too objected to the blockade, but for different reasons.

Ruslan Martagov, chief of the Grozny mayor's press service, told Interfax that closing the city and disrupting communication between communities across the republic "without a convincing explanation of what is happening," just boosts the separatists' prestige.

The Chechen separatists look on 6 August as the day they liberated Grozny from Russian occupiers. But less than three years later Russian troops were back, in a fresh offensive that caused thousands of military and civilian casualties, sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing into neighboring Ingushetia and led to the destruction of most of Grozny's buildings.

Putin's claim that the end of the war was in sight came in December 1999 -- just before Boris Yeltsin named him his acting successor. But 17 months on, the reports come every day of servicemen killed or wounded, or of "bandits destroyed" by Russian forces.

Rachel Denber at Human Rights Watch says the second campaign is a lot tougher in many ways than the first. Each time Chechen separatists take out a Russian position, she says, Russian forces retaliate by carrying out sweep operations, something she calls "an arbitrary form of collective punishment."

"Certainly there were sweep operations in the last campaign. There were filtration camps and torture, but not on this scale. Another violation we have been documenting pretty consistently is disappearances. When someone is detained by Russian forces, they are taken away and their family hears nothing from them. And in fact when their family tries to get information from law enforcement agencies or from the military, they are met with this terrible wall of silence, and often denial that the person is even in custody. There are hundreds of people who have been disappeared that way. In the first war this phenomenon did exist but not on this level."

She says it's frustrating that the war has largely disappeared from the front pages of the world's press, and from the agendas of bilateral meetings between Western countries and Russia.

Such sweeps, or "mopping-up operations," to flush out separatist fighters last month unleashed accusations of widespread atrocities by Russian forces, as many civilians disappeared during raids in three Chechen villages

Even Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration, complained, demanding that top Russian army officials be held responsible for crimes committed against civilians. Kadyrov said the subsequent arrests of six lower-ranking soldiers accused of committing the abuses was unsatisfactory.

Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov tried to draw attention to the abuses by writing to participants in the G-7 plus Russia summit held last month in Genoa. He said the Western leaders were putting pragmatism above morality by ignoring Russian excesses in Chechnya.

But Putin has defended Russian actions, saying that any abuses by federal troops are outweighed by Chechen rebel atrocities. His office says officials have instituted at least 82 criminal cases against Russian servicemen accused of committing crimes against Chechens.

Memorial's Cherkasov says the Russian authorities have used much more force in their second campaign but without producing the results they want:

"The main difference between this and the last war is the lack of will on the part of the federal authorities to enter into dialogue to find a political solution to the conflict. And that means an endless prolongation [of the war.]"

Until such peace talks take place, he says, the conflict will drag on without resolution.