Chechen executions spark outcry

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Heads hanging, a man and a woman shuffle forward and are handcuffed to a wall. Before them is a firing squad of five men. Beyond is a crowd of onlookers who appear unmoved by what is about to occur.

The camera pans out. There is a burst of machine gun fire, and a puff of dust as bullets hammer into the wall. The two slump forward, and fall to the ground. The execution, by Chechen officials under Sharia law, is complete. Film of the atrocity, which happened a week ago, has been broadcast on Russian television several times, causing a ripple of horror even in this violence-hardened society.

The killings are an attempt by the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, to end an epidemic of kidnappings - including the abduction of two British aid workers - which has turned his republic into a no-go zone for outsiders. But the ensuing outcry has revived the question of Chechnya's status which, under a post-war deal, is not due to be resolved until 2001.

Moscow prosecutors say the executions could amount to murder under the Russian Criminal Code, and have launched an investigation. The Chechens, who claim to be independent, say Russian law holds no sway on their hard- won turf. Their vice president, Vakha Arsonov, has responded by threatening to prosecute Russia for genocide during the 1994-96 war, in which an estimated 80,000 died.

Another, more pressing, factor has also been in play: oil politics. The executions coincided with haggling between Moscow and Grozny over a pipeline to carry the first wave of Azeri oil from the Caspian to the Black Sea. Creating bad publicity over the executions was an unsubtle attempt by Moscow to apply negotiating pressure.

Yesterday, there was agreement to mend a pipe across the republic, and send 200,000 tons of Caspian oil through it by the year's end. No one can be confident of how long the deal will hold. Today may bring an intriguing test of Russia's position. The Chechens plan to execute two more people. The question is: with the oil talks settled, will Moscow still care?