Putin makes surprise visit to Chechnya after rebel attacks

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced visit to Chechnya yesterday, laying flowers at the grave of the region's assassinated president, Akhmad Kadyrov, a week before an election to replace him.

President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced visit to Chechnya yesterday, laying flowers at the grave of the region's assassinated president, Akhmad Kadyrov, a week before an election to replace him.

Mr Putin arrived at Mr Kadyrov's home village of Tsentoroi early in the morning and placed red carnations at his grave, standing beside Mr Kadyrov's son Ramzan and the Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, the Kremlin's favoured candidate in the election on 29 August.

On Saturday, heavy fighting broke out in the Chechen capital Grozny. Authorities said rebels attacked a police station near a central square as well a police patrol and polling stations for next week's vote.

An official in the Moscow-backed government said more than 30 people were killed in fighting in two Grozny neighbourhoods, including at least 23 Chechen police or Russian servicemen and some civilians. The official said three polling stations came under fire.

Ruslan Tatayev, a spokes-man for the Chechen Interior Ministry, said six policemen were killed and five slightly injured. He said the city was closed, and 10 rebels were surrounded on its outskirts. A spokesman for Russia's military, Major-General Ilya Shabalkin, said that at least 18 militants were killed, and 50 killed or seriously wounded, with 12 detained. Both Russian forces and rebels often overestimate casualties on the other side, and the figures could not be independently confirmed.

Mr Putin's visit is significant. Although many Chechens feared or disliked Mr Kadyrov, a former separatist who became the Kremlin's most powerful ally in the region, Russian and Chechen officials have lionised him since his death.

"We lost a very courageous, talented and exceptionally decent person," Mr Putin said at the grave. "He had no other aim in his life but one: service to his people. He moved toward this goal on a difficult path, but was always honest. And our task - our obligation - is to carry out all that Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov planned, all his good works and initiatives."

The Russian President rarely visits Chechnya, his last being in May, two days after Mr Kadyrov was killed by a bomb at a Grozny stadium. Just a few hours after his arrival, Mr Putin was back in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Mr Alkhanov and the powerful Ramzan Kadyrov, a first vice-premier of Chechnya.

The visits appeared aimed to show Kremlin concern about Chechnya's fate and to further boost the chances of Mr Alkhanov, who vowed to continue Mr Kadyrov's "course and policy". In Sochi, Mr Putin stressed the importance of compensation payments to Chechens for wartime damage and supported the use of proceeds from Chechen oil to rebuild the region.

The election of Akhmad Kadyrov last October, in a vote human rights groups called fraudulent, was part of a Kremlin strategy to bring the region under closer control and weaken militants who have fought two wars against Russian forces in 10 years. But fighting persists nearly five years after the start of the second war, launched when Mr Putin took a tough stance on Chechnya in 1999.

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