Chechnya refugees caught in crossfire

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REFUGEES FLEEING Chechnya yesterday expressed in graphic terms how they are caught between the two factions fighting for control of the republic. Russian artillery and warplanes continued their bombardment of towns and villages around the capital, Grozny, forcing hundreds more refugees towards the border with Ingushetia. But those fleeing told how the "terrorists", whom the Russians say they are battling, are visiting misery on the population in roughly equal measure.

Lisa Miaeba, a middle-aged Chechen woman from the village of Achkoi-Martan, was visibly angry. Her fury was directed first against the Russians. She said: "My cousin was killed in his car when he was going to sell firewood. The next day the Russian airforce said it had destroyed two carloads of terrorists."

The second cause of Mrs Miaeba's anger was less predictable. She said: "There is a bandit who controls my village called Ruslan Madiev. He has 300 men who kidnap people and do what they want. But the Russians have never bombed his home."

Mrs Miaeba went on to explain that Madiev whose nickname is "Kus", claimed to be a Wahhabi, an Islamic fundamentalist. "They pray but they are not real believers. They violate Muslim law, which says you should not kill or kidnap."

In public Chechens are reluctant to admit to divisions within their own people, while privately the hatred of the Wahhabis comes a close second to that expressed against the Russian army. "No," said Artskho Karimov, a driver also from Achkoi-Martan, when asked about Madiev. "His home has not been hit and none of his gangsters are suffering any problems."

Asked why the Wahhabis are so disliked in Chechnya, Usam Baisaev, a young Chechen journalist, said that it is not merely because they are associated with banditry. "We are Muslims, but people see them as belonging to the Arabic rather than the Chechen tradition," he said. "The Wahhabis advocate the submission of one person to another and we do not. They want our women to wear veils and that is outrageous to us."

Ever since the war started six weeks ago, Russian spokesmen have said that they are in Chechnya to root out Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The Russians claim frequently - though without producing any evidence - that reinforcements for the Wahhabis from the Taliban in Afghanistan are pouring into Chechnya. In fact pure Islamic fundamentalism has never been strong in Chechnya; its real base is Dagestan and its best known proponent is Khatab, a native of northern Saudi Arabia, who is reputed to command 250 men.

There are two reasons why Wahhabis in Chechnya have a notoriety well beyond their strength; firstly, local bandits like Arbi Barayev based in the villages of Urus-Martan and Alkhan-Yurt, have adopted the name as an ideological cover for their activities; secondly, it is a term of abuse, used by both Chechens and Russians, to describe more significant figures like Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord, though his beliefs are much closer to traditional Chechen nationalism.

There is a real division in Chechen ranks. Basayev was a battle leader in the last war, commanding a unit of about 2000 men. Along with Khatab, he launched the invasion of Dagestan last August, which ignited the present war. He may receive money from the Arab world, but he has also admitted to being paid by Boris Berezovsky, the multi-millionaire oligarch in Moscow.

Since the end of the last war president Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, has tried to unite the Chechen warlords under his sway. So far, he has largely failed. His recent letter to President Clinton appealing for US help in ending the "genocide of the Chechens" has so far brought only expressions of concern from the White House, and an insistence that the Russians must get involved in dialogue.

Soon after the start of the present war President Maskhadov and Basayev agreed to co-operate. But the understanding fell apart almost immediately.

The Chechens are divided, but not by religion. Many of their military commanders have the mentality of a guerrilla leader who takes no orders from anybody. In the three years of de facto Chechen independence its political and criminal elite grew closer.

The same, as Chechens are quick to point out, applies to Russia. "Neither Maskhadov nor [Russian president Boris] Yeltsin really control their commanders," said Mrs Miaeba gloomily as she trudged across the border to see if her house in was still standing.