In the first sign that the war in Chechnya is spreading to the rest of Russia's mountainous North Caucasus, guerrillas yesterday killed 18 Russian soldiers in an ambush in Ingushetia, a neighbouring republic which has kept out of the conflict.
A senior Russian general said that a convoy was almost wiped out by gunmen firing rocket-propelled grenades as it passed through a wooded area in Ingushetia, which shares a long border with Chechnya.
The ambush is strong evidence that the seven-monthwar between Russian forces and rebels in breakaway Chechnya is now spilling into the small republics, all belonging to the Russian federation, in the North Caucasus.
Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord, said earlier this week: "We are going to declare a jihad [holy war] across the whole Caucasus, everywhere where the Russian aggressors are."
Russian investigators at the ambush site said they could not identify the gunmen but the professionalism of the attack leaves no doubt that they were Chechen guerrillas or local allies recruited by them. The rebels had deep trenches and the ferocity of their assault gave the Interior Ministry troops no time to defend themselves.
Ever since the Chechen war restarted last year, when Chechen rebels briefly invaded Dagestan, local leaders have feared that the Chechens would try to spread the war. Until yesterday, however, the savage fighting, in which 2,233 Russian soldiers have been killed, and 6,575 wounded, was confined largely to Chechnya.
The attack may indicate divisions between Chechen military commanders. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president, had proposed peace negotiations with Russia earlier in the week, even suggesting a ceasefire to begin at the end of the month.
At almost the same moment guerrilla commanders close to Mr Basayev were reported by the Chechen website to have demanded at a meeting that Russian forces leave Chechnya by the same date. They said that if Russia did not comply they "would declare the entire North Caucasus a combat zone and will start to destroy the aggressors across the entire Caucasus".
The attack yesterday in Ingushetia, north of the village of Khalashki, is evidence that the Chechen leaders have not even waited for their own deadline. It is a particularly ominous development because in the last Chechen war, in 1994-96, the Chechens made a number of bloody forays into southern Russia, the most famous at Budyonnovsk, where Mr Basayev killed hostages in a hospital and fought off Russian counter-attacks.
Since the start of the present war, Chechen refugees have often said they were nervous of returning home because they feared Russian retaliation if guerrillas made renewed forays into Russia. With Budyonnovsk, Russian leaders in Moscow were prepared to negotiate the release of hostages in return for a guerrilla withdrawal. Vladimir Putin, the new President of Russia, is unlikely to pursue the same course. Russian public opinion is still behind fighting the war to the finish.
It will be impossible, however, for Russian forces to stop Chechen raiding parties moving into other parts of the North Caucasus. Although, in contrast to the last war, Chechens are now detested and feared in Dagestan, the republic to the east of Chechnya, local security forces are weak and would be unable to stop guerrilla units.
The republic of Georgia, which shares a 50-mile border with Chechnya, is also deeply worried that Russia will blame it if guerrillas cross the mountains and set up base camps on its territory.
* Council of Europe foreign ministers said yesterday that Russia was taking the right steps to allay human rights fears about its war in Chechnya.
The council is the first since the human rights body's parliamentary assembly called on its ministers last month to suspend Russia unless it immediately halted rights abuses in the rebel Caucasus territory.Reuse content