Russia quietly pulls back forces from Chechnya fight on

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The Independent Online

Russia has quietly halved its forces in Chechnya to 50,000 men in a tacit admission that it cannot overcome the resistance of rebel fighters.

Russia has quietly halved its forces in Chechnya to 50,000 men in a tacit admission that it cannot overcome the resistance of rebel fighters.

The cutback in troop levels is continuing despite an increase in guerrilla attacks on Russian soldiers in Grozny, the ruined Chechen capital, and in surrounding towns captured by the Russian army earlier in the war.

General Vyacheslav Borisov, the deputy Russian commander in Chechnya, says his forces now number 48,958 men, backed by 202 tanks and 1,784 armoured personnel carriers. At the height of the fighting, during the battle for Grozny earlier in the year, Russia maintained a force of almost 100,000 soldiers in the rebel republic.

The Russian army was able to pen the guerrillas into the mountains of southern Chechnya and inflict heavy casualties on them, but it also began to suffer big losses in ambushes. The reduction in troop levels indicates that the army has largely given up it efforts to hunt down guerrilla units. Russia has lost 2,127 soldiers killed and 6,021 wounded in the war, according to official figures.

The Kremlin has had less interest in achieving a total victory since Vladimir Putin, who sprang from obscurity as the man who launched the Chechen war nine months ago, won the presidential election in March. In a recent opinion poll, 48 per cent of Russians said they wanted to continue the military campaign in Chechnya and 23 per cent favoured peace negotiations. That showed the support for the war is still substantial, but slipping.

In a remarkably frank interview with the Novya Gazeta newspaper, General Vladimir Shamanov, one of the most combative Russian commanders in the war, said: "I feel like a foreign body in Moscow. Most of all I'm depressed with [the leaders'] mistaken belief that their well-being ends with the ring road around Moscow and not with the southern borders of Russia in the Caucasus."

Gen Shamanov insisted that accounts of Russian atrocities against Chechen civilians were exaggerated. But, he said, much of the indiscipline in the Russian army is the result of the use of "contract" soldiers who "want to make money by any method, including looting". Gen Shamanov said the "contract" soldiers were also typified by lack of professionalism, drunkenness and idleness.

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