Putin surprises Chechens with visit and vow to rebuild shattered region

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin tried to reassert Moscow's faltering grip on Chechnya yesterday by paying a surprise visit to the republic two days after his chief ally in the region was blown up.

President Vladimir Putin tried to reassert Moscow's faltering grip on Chechnya yesterday by paying a surprise visit to the republic two days after his chief ally in the region was blown up.

Anxious to win back the initiative after the assassination of pro-Moscow Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov, Mr Putin outlined Moscow's response to the attack and made a plethora of promises designed to appease the region's long-suffering population of one million.

His strategy would seem to be to win the trust and confidence of the Chechen populace by rebuilding a region that has been shelled and bombed by Russian forces for much of the past decade. His first step was to order the creation of a special team of advisers to rebuild the war-shattered social and economic fabric of Chechnya.

Underlining how important the task was, he even suggested that the group, which he said will fly into Chechnya soon, may be led by German Gref, Russia's dynamic Economics Minister.

"Of course some work is going on there," he said of the Chechen capital, Grozny. "But from a helicopter it looks awful." Mr Putin made it clear, however, that no effort would be spared in hunting down the rebels suspected of mounting the attack that killed Mr Kadyrov.

"The criminals must be found," he said. "Of course the tragedy of 9 May was yet another lesson for us. It was a significant tragedy and a big loss but nobody should be in any doubt that the core conditions for the rebuilding of Chechnya - military, legal and organisational - are so fundamental that nobody will succeed in undoing the process."

Backing up his words with deeds, Mr Putin indicated that an extra 1,125 police officers would be drafted into the republic by the end of the year.

That is on top of a special reserve unit of troops who are on standby to fly in to bolster Russia's 70,000-strong force if the situation turns "unpleasant". Paying only his fourth visit to Chechnya since 1999 when he ordered Russian troops to reinvade, Mr Putin flew in amid tight security. His visit was only made public after he had returned to Moscow.

Ordering compensation to be paid to the relatives of everyone who was injured or killed in the bomb attack, Mr Putin visited a barracks as well as the wounded commander of forces in the region who lost a leg in Sunday's attack.

In a sign that the Kremlin may wish Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of the murdered president, to take over from his father, Mr Putin posthumously awarded Akhmad Kadyrov Russia's "Hero Star." He also met the dead man's widow.

Ramzan Kadyrov, 27, has already been appointed Chechnya's Deputy Prime Minister and appears to be preaparing his position for fresh presidential elections, due to take place before September.

Human rights groups and many Chechens believe he is grossly unsuitable for the job. As head of his father's private militia, he stands accused of abducting, torturing and murdering hundreds of Chechen civilians who disagreed with the Moscow-backed regime.

Ramzan denies the charges but yesterday he faced fresh allegations from Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's best-known investigative journalist in Chechnya. "He is an extremely cruel man," she told Ekho Moskvy radio.

"I have met several people who told me that Ramzan Kadyrov personally tortured them in his home in the village of Tsentoroi." Ms Politkovskaya alleged that Ramzan and his men had tortured his father's opponents in last year's presidential elections which were widely regarded to be rigged.

"They [the witnesses] said that Ramzan Kadyrov and the other man with him used very elaborate torture. For example, they peel narrow strips of skin off a person's back. This is the sort of torture you would call medieval brutality."

"That is perhaps the best characterisation of the kind of person he is. Also in the same village of Tsentoroi, which has now been turned into a sort of fortress, orgies are known to take place after torture. I have been personally told about this too," she concluded.