Chechens in peace talks shot by Islamic extremists

WOUNDED CHECHEN villagers yesterday accused Islamic guerrillas of attacking them to deter a planned truce with the Russian army. The incident underlines the deep split in Chechnya between Islamic extremists and Chechens who want to save their homes from the Russian bombardment.

The shooting last Sunday happened in the village of Gechi, southwest of Grozny, the Chechen capital. The severely wounded villagers, now in hospital in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, said they had sent a delegation to the Russian army commander to get him to stop artillery and air attacks on Gechi, where scores of people had been killed and injured.

General Shamanov, the commander of Russian forces in western Chechnya, told them: "We will stop shooting at you; don't shoot at us." When the delegation returned, its leaders called a meeting in the street in Gechi to explain the terms of the truce to the villagers.

Liuma Umatgireev, a local butcher, says that about 130 people attended the meeting, which started early Sunday afternoon. But he also noticed 11 heavily armed men were in the street. Nobody in Gechi had seen them before but they were immediately identifiable by their long beards as Wahhabis, the name given in Chechnya to Islamic extremists.

Mr Umatgireev said that he asked one of the Wahhabis: "Who are you and where are you from?"

The man replied: "We are from Urus-Martan [a nearby town] and our commander is Emir Akhmadov."

The Wahhabis then began to shout down any of the villagers who wanted to discuss the truce.

"I took one of the Wahhabis by the hand and said to him `let the older people speak'," Mr Umatgireev said. "His left hand was still in mine when he turned his gun on me with his other hand and shot me through the leg with his Kalashnikov." An X-ray shows where the bullet smashed through the bone of Mr Umatgireev's lower right leg.

By this time the other Wahhabis had also opened fire on the villagers. Hassan Katsaev, an engineer who was shot through both legs, said: "They would have killed me if some of my relatives had not intervened." He said the Wahhabis were wearing camouflage uniforms and carried the latest weapons and equipment, such as high-quality field radios.

The Wahhabis, whose brand of Islam is very different from that practised in the Arab world, have never been very numerous in Chechnya. Their most famous leader is Khattab, a Saudi Arabian, and they are well financed. Chechens say Wahhabism is also used as cover by local leaders engaged in banditry and kidnapping.

Many Chechens blame the Wahhabis for giving Russia a pretext for invading Chechnya eight weeks ago. In August they launched an abortive attack on Dagestan and Moscow has portrayed its invasion of Chechnya, and its unrelenting shelling and bombings of civilians, as being directed solely against "Islamic terrorists".

Russian tactics have been to keep their own casualties low by bombarding towns and villages until local leaders are compelled to promise that they will persuade Chechen fighters, most of whom are not Wahhabis, to leave. By these means the Russian army was able to capture Gudermes, the second city of Chechnya, and Achkhoi-Martan, an important town, without making a full-scale assault.

Villagers are bitter about being squeezed between the competing demands of the Russian army and the Wahhabis. In the ward in the hospital in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia, where Mr Katsaev was lying, there were victims of both Wahhabis and Russians.

When Mr Katsaev said, "Nobody supports the Wahhabis but we don't want the Russians in charge", a voice from another bed agreed with him. This turned out to belong to Vahid Achiev, a musician, who was blinded when a delayed action Russian missile blew up in his village of Novy Sharoi on 23 October. "I can't recognise Russian power," Mr Achiev said.

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