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Chicago Tribune
December 9, 2001
Chechens deny their republic is bin Laden pawn
By Reese Erlich.

Reese Erlich produced "The Russia Project," a radio documentary hosted by Walter Cronkite that will air on public radio stations this month

"Will America bomb us now?" asked Aza, a 41-year-old Chechen refugee. She has lived for two years in a refugee camp in Ingushetia, in southern Russia near the Chechen border, and like many fellow refugees closely follows the news on the radio.

She knows that Presidents Bush and Putin have allied to fight terrorism and worries that the U.S. will throw muscle into Russia's war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Assured that the U.S. has no plans to militarily support the Russians, Aza is nonetheless concerned about the shift in U.S. policy.

For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Osama bin Laden financed and trained fighters in Chechnya, but he never produced proof. Since Sept. 11, however, Putin has received a much more favorable response from Bush's administration and from other Western leaders. They now publicly call Chechnya part of the war against terrorism and no longer criticize Russian human-rights abuses there.

"I think Americans understand a little bit more about the complexity of terrorists, and that the Russians are not so evil," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, former deputy chairman of a Duma committee on Chechnya who now heads a think tank in Moscow.

But Chechens say that bin Laden has no control over events in their republic and that they are waging a war of independence against a brutal occupying army.

"It's stupid to link the rebels with bin Laden," Aza said.

Convoluted war

The war in Chechnya is far more complicated than politicians in Moscow or Washington publicly admit.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechen leaders declared independence. Russia rejected the claim and in 1994 launched a brutal war against rebels and civilians. By 1996, Russia was militarily humbled. President Boris Yeltsin was forced to withdraw Russian troops and sign a peace treaty giving Chechnya de facto independence.

However, Chechnya quickly descended into near anarchy with criminal gangs and warlords operating freely. Supporters of a strict Islamic state, known generically as Wahabbis, began to emerge as a political force.

In early 1999, terrorists exploded bombs that killed 300 people in apartment buildings in Russian cities far from Chechnya. The Russian government blamed Chechen rebels. But later that year, troops from Russia's internal security bureau were caught planting a bomb in an apartment basement. They later claimed they were carrying out a training exercise, but the incident created doubt. Critics say at least some of the apartment bombings were government provocations aimed at creating outrage that would translate into civilian support for a renewed military campaign in Chechnya.

Then a Wahabbi warlord invaded the Russian province of Dagestan and briefly declared an Islamic state before being driven back into Chechnya by Russian troops.

In late 1999, Russia sent troops into Chechnya again.

The rebels

At the beginning of the current war, 16,000 to 20,000 rebel fighters took up arms against the Russian military. The rebels fall into three categories:

- Secular nationalists. These advocates of complete independence from Russia and have the strongest support among Chechens but have only about 20 percent of the armed fighters. Their best-known leader is Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president of Chechnya in 1997.

- Wahabbis. These advocates of a strict Islamic state have far less political support but control perhaps 50 percent of the rebel fighters. Their best-known leaders include Khattab and Shamil Basayev. Even if bin Laden financed or trained some Wahabbi fighters, few analysts believe he has operational control over the rebels.

- Clans and criminals. Some of the resistance comes from angry family members avenging the murder of relatives or from gangs using the war as an excuse for kidnapping and other criminal activity.

Rebels of all stripes enjoy some popular support because of what critics say are the corrupt and brutal tactics of the Russian military. Refugees complain of indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks that have killed thousands of civilians.

"Soldiers can approach any food market and take everything," said Sasita Muradova, a lawyer for the Russian human-rights group Memorial. Chechen civilians frequently must bribe soldiers to get people out of jail or even to get the bodies of slain relatives. This "trading and selling of people is awful," Muradova said.

Nikonov admits that Russian troops violate human rights but, echoing similar justifications by U.S. authorities regarding Afghanistan, he says such tactics are sometimes necessary in the fight against terrorism.

Two perspectives

"I've never heard of a bloodless operation where human lives aren't lost and civil rights were observed," Nikonov said.

But such operations look different to the victims. Tempieva Hasan was caught in a Russian bombing raid in her hometown.

"My jaw was injured and I lost my teeth in the explosion," she said. "I am only 39 years old, and I don't have one tooth."

Hasan later fled to refugee camps in the neighboring Russian province of Ingushetia, along with 150,000 other Chechens. These refugees would like to return home if Russian and Chechen leaders could reach a peace settlement.

"If we were guaranteed that there would be no more bombing, today, with my entire family, I would walk to Chechnya," Hasan said. "I would not have spent a night here otherwise."

But given Putin's newfound international support and rebel intransigence, serious peace negotiations do not appear likely any time soon.

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