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The Sunday Times (UK)
2 December 2001
Russians in Kabul on spying mission
THE Kremlin has sent a group of intelligence agents to Kabul to gather information about Chechen followers of the Taliban, writes Mark Franchetti.

The agents from the GRU — Russian military intelligence — and the SVR — the foreign intelligence service — are working under the cover of the emergency situations ministry, which caught America by surprise last week when it sent 100 men to the Afghan capital, supposedly on a humanitarian mission.

The first armed Russians to return since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended in 1989, they have set up a base on a stony patch of wasteland in the centre of Kabul.

Security sources in Moscow said the agents had been told to find evidence of links between Osama Bin Laden and Islamic rebels fighting in Chechnya. Russia has accused Bin Laden of funding the rebels and training them in Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

“Of course we are interested in having a presence in Kabul,” said a Russian intelligence source. “Afghanistan is much closer to our border than it is to Britain and America. We have been fighting Muslim terrorists for years.”

Sources in Moscow said the agents were searching dozens of houses used by Al-Qaeda. Some of the documents found are reportedly in Russian and may have belonged to Chechens training there.

The Russians are also seeking evidence to back their claims that Khattab, a ruthless Chechen field commander, is associated with Bin Laden. The Saudi-Arabian born Khattab, one of Russia’s most wanted men, is said to have taken money from Bin Laden, a claim he denies.

The agents flew to Bagram air base, north of Kabul, aboard a dozen IL-76 cargo planes that brought in the workers from the emergency situations ministry. Officially, the group’s tasks are to open a field hospital for Afghans hurt in the conflict and to rebuild the Russian embassy, which has been damaged by bombs.

Russia supplied the Northern Alliance with arms and wants it to secure powerful positions in the post-Taliban government. “The Russians are back because Putin wants to show the world that any post-Taliban solution needs to accommodate Moscow,” said one western diplomat. “Landing in Kabul was a bit of showmanship to tell Washington and London that Russia intends to play a role there.”

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