'Partisan' war shakes Russians

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The Independent Online

As the coffins of 37 Russian police officers, killed in a Chechen ambush, were flown into Moscow yesterday, a military spokesman denied reports from the west that fed- eral forces had suffered more heavy losses in another attack by separatist guerrillas.

As the coffins of 37 Russian police officers, killed in a Chechen ambush, were flown into Moscow yesterday, a military spokesman denied reports from the west that fed- eral forces had suffered more heavy losses in another attack by separatist guerrillas.

Nevertheless, Russians were clearly unnerved by the ability of the Chechens to continue partisan-style fighting after the supposed end of the war, and commentators spoke of the danger of Chechnya becoming Russia's "internal Afghanistan".

The 37 special police officers, all from the town of Sergiev Posad, near Moscow, died when a band of about 40 guerrillas attacked their lorries as they drove towards Grozny on Thursday. The independent NTV television channel spoke for millions when it asked how heavily armed rebels could have emerged from the morning fog and surprised the convoy when the capital was meant to have been "cleaned" of guerrillas last month.

Yesterday, it seemed as if Islamic fighters might have pulled off a similar coup by attacking another military convoy in the Argun gorge. But Russian spokesmen, while admitting that fighting continued in the southern mountains, denied that there had been another dramatic ambush with big losses.

With presidential elections only three weeks away, the Russians are keen to wind up the "anti-terrorist campaign" in Chechnya, which had initially made Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin favourite and ex-KGB officer, so popular. But while federal forces last week ran up the Russian tricolour over the mountain village of Shatoi, the "last rebel stronghold to fall", they were forced to admit they had not captured any of the Chechen field commanders. President Aslan Maskhadov and the warlords, Ruslan Gilayev and Salman Raduyev, as well as Khattab and Shamil Basayev, were all out there, somewhere.

Such dangers became the nightmare of the Soviet soldiers who spent 10 years in Afghanistan before finally admitting defeat in May 1988. Although heavily armed, they had become frightened of the Afghan mujahedin, whom they called "spirits" for their ability to make hit-and-run attacks and then melt into the civilian population. Soviet troops in their armoured personnel carriers might have been masters of the land by day, but at night the "spirits" were the lords.

The word "dusha", meaning spirit, is in the lexicon of the new generation of Russian conscripts. "The situations are very similar," said Colonel Oleg Koulakov, a veteran of the Afghan war and now a professor of strategic studies at a military academy in Moscow. "But I'd say the Chechens are even better fighters than were the Afghans. They have good reconnaissance. They knew perfectly well who they were attacking on Thursday. Not an army column because that would have air support - they went for a poorly protected police column."

The problem would only get worse, he said, as the army withdrew, leaving the police to run security in Chechnya.

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