Chechen fighters alarm Jordan

THE CHECHEN conflict has sparked fears in Jordan that the kingdom could become the base for armed Islamic militants engaged in a long Afghan-style struggle against the Russians. Jordan is home to 15,000 descendants of Chechen refugees who fled Ru ssian rule in the 19th century. Muslims from all over the Middle East have volunteered to fight for the breakaway republic, leading Russia to complain to Jordan that it has become a gathering point for "mercenaries'' from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, I r aq and Iran.

Western diplomats in Amman say the Jordanians fear that a prolonged guerrilla war could be a re-run of the Afghan conflict. "Yesterday's volunteers with the Afghan mujaheddin are today's terrorists in Algeria, Egypt and Gaza," one diplomat said.

Jordan's Chechen connection dates from the mid-19th century, when Imperial Russia wrested control of the northern Caucasus from the Ottoman Turks. Thousands of Circassians, Chechens and other tribespeople fled to Jordan at the invitation of the Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Hamid. His generosity arose partly from a wish to help fellow Muslims, and partly because he saw them as loyal colonists who would counterbalance rebellious local Arabs.

The Chechens in Jordan have kept alive a strong sense of national identity and a fierce hatred of the Russians. But they are split among themselves.

In 1988, towards the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Chechens led by the late Youssef Avtarkhanov met in Germany to discuss Chechen training for the mujaheddin. His son Omar, however, led last year's Russian-backed rebellion against the regime of General Dzhokhar Dudayev in Grozny.

When Gen Dudayev was sworn in as president in Grozny in November 1991, he insisted that the ceremony be witnessed by Jordan's best-known Chechen politician, cabinet member Sheikh Abdel Baqui Jummo.

Three years later, Sheikh Jummo and his followers switched sides to back the Russian Parliament's former speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov and Omar Avtarkhanov against Dudayev. They called for Chechen self-rule within the Russian Federation.

The other two Chechen Jordanian MPs, Said Bino and Ms Tujan Faisal, are staunch Dudayev supporters. They recentlyforced a debate on the Russian invasion, much to the embarrassment of the government of Dr Abdel Salam el-Majali, which is anxious to maintain good trade relations with Russia.

Such is the antipathy between the groups that when Ms Faisal branded Sheikh Jummo "a Russian stooge'' his supporters threatened to cut out her tongue.

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