Chechens on brink of war over kidnaps

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The Independent Online
THE CHECHEN president, Aslan Maskhadov, has called up army reservists to pursue the Islamic fundamentalists accused of kidnapping and murdering foreign hostages in the Caucasus.

A French United Nations worker, Vincent Cochetel, was flown to Geneva on Saturday after being rescued by Russian commandos from kidnappers in North Ossetia, near the Chechen border.

He was held alone in near total darkness for 317 days and his prospects did not seem promising after the recent killing in Chechnya of four engineers from Britain and New Zealand. Mr Maskhadov's reservists, wearing black balaclavas, were yesterday shown on Russia's independent NTV channel lined up in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and ready to go into battle.

By challenging the gangs responsible for a wave of abductions in the region, one of which is known as the Islamic Regiment, the moderate Chechen president is risking a civil war.

Some of the radical warlords have forces as large as his regular army. On Saturday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Turpal Atgireyev, appeared on television to name the warlord behind their kidnapping as Arbi Barayev, the Islamic Regiment head, who led a short-lived fundamentalist uprising against Mr Maskhadov in August, in which 15 people died. He was later named as a suspect in a car-bomb attack on the Chechen President.

The parties fought together in the war for Chechnya's independence against Russia from 1994 to 1996 but have since become enemies, even though they agree on independence from Russia.

The secular Mr Maskhadov takes a gradual approach and supports continuing economic ties with Russia, while the radicals want to establish a strict Islamic regime. The risk is that the moderates and fundamentalists will tear each other apart in a region already ruined by two years of bombardment by the Russian army.

The murdered engineers, Peter Kennedy, Darren Hickey, Rudolf Petschi and Stanley Shaw, who were helping to restore telecommunications in the region, fell victim to thisstruggle rather than to the greed of ransom- seekers. The hostages died in a failed rescue operation and their severed heads were found last Tuesday by a road.

Mr Maskhadov blamed "Chechen bandits financed by foreign special services", which might have meant Russia's special services, which the Chechens accuse of trying to undermine and discredit them. The Chechen leader, who visited Britain and several other countries to seek recognition for his nation, was in despair. "Always we are cast in the light of the enemy, of bandits, of animals," he said, admitting that the murders had been a huge setback for Chechnya.

Russia's press has crowed about Chechnya's shame and predicted it will be a pariah state for years. Last week, after the killings, ordinary Russians spoke of Chechnya in the same way that, after pub bombings, British people used to talk about Northern Ireland. "Now you see why we went to war with them. They are medieval. We should have nuked them," a Muscovite said.