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Chechnya Conflict Dragging On
December 18, 2001

MOSCOW (AP) - Seven years after Russian troops entered Chechnya to end the republic's independence drive, the Kremlin is still fighting to bring the region to heel, the rebels battle on - and the general suffering is intense.

Rarely does a day go by without violence in the small Caucasus Mountain republic: a firefight between Russian troops and rebels, a mine exploding, or a roundup of Chechen males.

Senior Russian officials say the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States have led to greater understanding for the fight against Chechen rebels. The Kremlin calls them terrorists and claims the separatists receive support from outside forces, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Western criticism of how the Kremlin is waging war in Chechnya has subsided in recent months, and Russian officials appear heartened after enduring years of often withering disapproval.

``The situation has changed and is going better,'' Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman for Chechnya, told reporters at the launching last week of a Kremlin-backed Web site on Chechnya that aims to rival an existing rebel site.

Yastrzhembsky said U.S. recognition that al-Qaida had been active in Chechnya was ``a good service'' for Russia.

Russian troops entered Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region a bit smaller than New Jersey, in December 1994, hoping to put a quick end to the republic's quest for independence. The Russians left in defeat and disgrace 20 months later, giving Chechnya virtual independence.

Chechnya descended into lawlessness and the Russian military returned in September 1999 following Chechnya-based rebels' incursion into neighboring Dagestan and a series of apartment bombings blamed on rebels in which some 300 people were killed.

This time Russian forces are determined to stay. They insist Chechnya will never become independent and they want to flush out foreign fighters.

Chechen rebels do not deny they had contacts with the Taliban, the former Afghan regime that recognized Chechnya's independence in 2000. Some observers have also speculated that bin Laden could try to seek refuge in Chechnya, but Yastrzhembsky just laughed when asked about that possibility.

Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a former president of Chechnya, denied this week that bin Laden, accused by the United States of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, funded the Chechen rebels.

``What we have are donations from Muslims who collected crumbs for us in the name of Allah,'' the Interfax news agency quoted Yandarbiyev as saying. ``Bin Laden has not had links with the Chechens.''

And he said fewer than 50 foreign fighters are active in Chechnya.

The Russians persistently blame foreign fighters for the war. But pro-Moscow Chechen officials say the influence of outsiders is minimal, and the anti-terror war in Afghanistan will not have a huge impact on the war in Chechnya.

Bislan Gantamirov, a former pro-Moscow mayor of the Chechen capital Grozny, said the anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan had led to a drop in the number of foreign fighters in Chechnya, a cut in outside financing for the rebels and the loss of rebel access to training camps in Afghanistan.

But Gantamirov said he was pessimistic about the impact the fighting in Afghanistan would have on the rebel war against the Russians.

``I don't think it will have an effect on their activities,'' he said. ``It (war) will all stop when we have the trust of the Chechen people.''

Gantamirov, now a federal inspector in southern Russia, and other pro-Moscow Chechen officials are trying to work up proposals for a new Chechen constitution. Recent talks between a rebel envoy and a senior Russian official represent dialogue, not negotiations.

Meanwhile, the war grinds on. Human Rights Watch this fall said it had documented very serious violations of human rights in Chechnya by the Russian military, including summary executions, torture, forced disappearances, and indiscriminate bombing.

But some human rights observers say there has been progress, including an effort by the Russian military to confront abuses by its forces.

``There seems to be more will that complaints are registered and followed up,'' said Nina Soumalainen, an adviser at the human rights division of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. ``It's a first step toward accountability by the military and the special forces.''

The plight of civilians does not seem to have improved in 2001. According to the Red Cross, 150,000 people who have fled Chechnya still are registered as displaced persons in Ingushetia, a poor republic that borders Chechnya. Thousands more live in nearby Russian regions, or have been forced from their homes but remain inside Chechnya.

``The conflict in Chechnya is not over, people continue to die, or live in fear and misery,'' said Lord Russell-Johnston, the head of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, in launching an appeal to the Russian authorities this month to improve the humanitarian situation in Chechnya.

On the Net:

Kremlin-backed site on Chechyna (Russian only), http://kavkaz.strana.ru

Pro-rebel site, http://www.kavkaz.org

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