Russia accuses British mine-clearing charity of aiding Chechens

By Angela Charlton, AP
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The Independent Online

Russia's main intelligence service on Thursday accused a British non-profit mine-clearing agency of spying on Russian forces in Chechnya and training rebels in the breakaway republic. The agency, HALO Trust, denied any such activity and insisted its goals were humanitarian.

Russia's main intelligence service on Thursday accused a British non-profit mine-clearing agency of spying on Russian forces in Chechnya and training rebels in the breakaway republic. The agency, HALO Trust, denied any such activity and insisted its goals were humanitarian.

HALO says it began mine clearance work in Chechnya after the 1994-96 war and had built up a staff of 150 Chechens. The agency said it was forced to stop its Chechnya activities after the latest war began last September.

The Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB's main successor, said in a statement that HALO Trust workers gathered descriptions of Russian weapons from Chechen-held territory until last November for British secret services.

"Representatives of HALO collected intelligence of a military-political character, and with these aims maintained close contacts with Chechen leaders and ... established a many-pronged network of informers from the local population," the statement said.

The FSB said that HALO had not only trained its Chechen staff to clear mines, but also to lay them. According to the FSB, HALO Trust opened its office in Chechnya in 1997 with the help of Chechnya's President Aslan Maskhadov without permission of Russian authorities. One of Maskhadov's bodyguards, Umar Akhukhodzhev, told Russia's ORT television that he was reassigned to guard HALO workers for a period in 1997.

HALO Trust director Guy Willoughby said in London on Thursday: "We just completely deny this sort of allegation, that we were in any way supporting mine laying or any form of terrorist activity. We were running a standard humanitarian mine clearing organization and the Russian authorities knew about it."

"We are not involved in any form in spying," he said. "Our international role is to clear mines and unexploded ordnance including cluster bombs, and if in November our office asked the headquarters for technical information on unexploded ordnance than that is our job."

Russian planes showered mines on Chechnya during the previous and current war, and have planted mines surrounding military installations. HALO said it recorded 296 mined areas in Chechnya after the 1994-96 war that it said were frightening refugees from returning home.

"We then stopped mine clearing when the Russians started the war again in Chechnya, but as that happened the Russians fired rockets into our mine fields and killed three of our de-miners, and four of our de-miners died in a Russian rocket attack," Willoughby said.

The Russian statement said HALO workers assigned to Georgia's separatist Abkhazia province started spying on Russia from Chechen territory in 1998. Chechnya borders the Caucasus Mountains nation of Georgia. HALO also has offices in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola and Mozambique. The agency says its funding comes from the governments of Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan, Canada and private donations.

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