Nation Shattered By Years Of Conflict

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THE FOUR engineers seized in Chechnya at the weekend are caught in a roaring trade in human beings that dates back centuries in the Caucasus, but which has spiralled out of control in the past two years.

The motive is, frequently, cash, but politics also plays a part. Heavily armed factions within the small and unstable Islamic republic reject the peace deal brokered with the Russians in 1996, after a 21-month war of secession, which claimed tens of thousands of lives. They have long sought to discredit the government of Aslan Maskhadov, the moderate former Chechen commander who was elected the president in early 1997 but has been struggling to impose control ever since.

They particularly resent Chechnya's unclear status: the war secured them de facto independence, but the impoverished one-million-strong republic remains part of the Russian Federation in the view of the international community. The issue of de jure independence remains unsettled business with the Russians, despite the Chechens' decisive military victory.

Chechnya's relationship with Moscow has been troubled for centuries, regularly exploding into conflict. It markedly worsened when the entire Chechen nation was deported to Central Asia and Siberia by Stalin at the end of the Second World War, returning only in the late Fifties.

In the past few years, foreign-sponsored Islamic fundamentalism, which took hold during the Chechen war, has caused a deepening rift, and may also lie behind the current abductions. Several hundred people - including a Russian television star reporter, foreign journalists and scores of Russian servicemen - have been seized.

Kidnapping is a favourite technique. It was used, to great effect, during the war when the Chechens conducted two mass hostage-takings on Russian soil. While the kidnappings continue, Chechnya's chan- ces of establishing itself as an internationally recognised nation only worsen. Once an important refining centre and transhipment point for Soviet oil, the republic is crying out for investment to rebuild its shattered infrastrucure, and the ruined capital, Grozny. Right now, it might as well whistle at the moon.