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Financial Times (UK)
8 December 2001
Ruins of a republic still at war

Seen from the night sky, the twinkling lights of the Chechen capital Grozny give the initial impression of an ordinary city. But with electricity still a rarity, most are in fact open flames from gas being burned in the bombed-out buildings below.

While delegates in Bonn were this week concluding a settlement aimed at bringing peace to Afghanistan, a group from the Council of Europe, the inter-governmental human rights organisation, flew into Grozny to witness the ruins of a republic still engaged in an inconclusive war with Russia more than two years after the most recent conflict began.

Russia has done much to take diplomatic advantage of links between rebels in the mainly Muslim breakaway republic of Chechnya and the war in Afghanistan. Chechen fighters have been among the thousands of foreign militants fighting with the now toppled Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation.

But Moscow's actions to win over foreign opinion on its bloody battle to suppress the Chechen rebels have been more effective than those to bring the conflict to an end.

Within hours of the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, while President Vladimir Putin was calling George W. Bush to offer consolations, his officials were already drawing parallels with Chechnya.

Russia has long argued that radical Islamic organi sations have been actively funding Chechen rebels, and supporting them with foreign fighters.

Critics say such arguments were designed to justify Russia's hardline military approach and explain its failure to suppress revolt in the tiny North Caucasus republic. But a growing number of independent observers have recently said that some such links do exist.

September 11 brought about a discernible change in the attitude of western leaders towards the conflict in Chechnya, with several such as Germany's Gerhard Schroder and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi openly sympathising with the Russian view. Others muted their criticism at a time when media attention was in any case turning from the Caucasus to Central Asia.

Mr Putin's own policy remains ambiguous. In a speech in late September supporting the US war on terrorism, he offered Chechens the chance to break their links with "unlawful militias", disarm and "integrate into peaceful life". But he offered them just 72 hours to act, and he also threatened a tougher alternative.

Independent observers estimate that 40-45 Russian troops are killed each month within the republic, while the federal side claims more than twice that number among rebel forces. Sergei Ivanov, Russia's defence minister, on Thursday promised an intensive winter campaign to "finish off the remaining bandit groups, and capture or destroy their ringleaders".

With tens of thousands of troops still based in the republic - in spite of previous promises to sharply reduce their number - Memorial, the Russian human rights organisation, has expressed concerns about regular detentions, attacks and disappearances of local people. "In some ways, the situation is getting worse," says Tatiana Kasatkina, executive director for Chechnya.

There has been modest progress towards political negotiations. Both Mr Putin and Aslan Maskhadov, the elected Chechen president who has been fighting the Russians, indicated their willingness to talk. But little came out of a meeting of their respective representatives last month at a Moscow airport.

Meanwhile, ordinary Chechens live squeezed between internal disagreements, anger at Russian troops, frustration at the devastated state of their homeland, and threats from rebels if they collaborate with Moscow's efforts to reconstruct on shaky foundations.

Akhmed Kadyrov, head of the pro-Russian Chechen administration, who is himself detested by many fellow Chechens, dismisses talks with Mr Maskhadov. "We can talk to him, but it will never lead anywhere," he says.

Sitting in one of the rare renovated buildings in the centre of Grozny with the Council of Europe delegation, his government spelt out efforts to restore normal life. By the end of December, it has promised to renovate a thousand homes for residents displaced by fighting, restore fixed and mobile telephone connections, open new courts, re-establish railway and bus networks and even begin twice-weekly direct flights from Moscow.

Yet Mr Kadyrov's office, to which he moved only over the summer from the safer northern town of Gudermes, sits next to a helipad surrounded by warehouses destroyed by shells. Helicopters set off flares as they come in to land, to divert heat-seeking missiles. Even on the day the Council delegation arrived, a Russian security service officer was robbed and killed in Grozny.

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