Russians selling weapons to their Chechen enemies

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Until Russian troops crashed into Chechnya nine weeks ago, Ali traded oil in Moscow. He had, he claims, never used a gun. But there is more to war than marksmanship. Now back in his home village on the main western road to Grozny, Ali wears camouflage fatigues over a tracksuit but is fighting Russia with his business skills - he buys arms from Russian soldiers.

"American dollars, Russian weapons and Chechen spirit will win this war," said the young trader-turned-guerrilla- fixer. He pulled a wad of $5,000 (£3,200) in $100 bills, the payment, he said, for his next deal: snipers' rifles, grenade launchers and ammunition.

"It is an amazing army," he said."The army is selling weapons which are killing its own men. But the soldiers are fully aware that the top leadership is making huge amounts of money from this war, so they are too."

Such deals not only help Chechen rebels keep fighting even after their main stronghold in Grozny has fallen but also make a mockery of what President Boris Yeltsin has fixed as the main aim of Moscow's military operation: "to disarm illegal bandit formations".

Ali, who has a Mercedes gathering dust in his courtyard, said he had armed a 50-strong village protection force using hard currency earnings from the oil business - one of the most notoriously corrupt and lucrative sectors of Russia's chaotic free-market. Other villages, similarly fearful of Russian raids no matter what their views of Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen rebel leader, have set up arms procurement groups. According to Mutal Barshigov, assistant administrator in the village of Samashki, all kinds of weapons can still be obtained at a price: "As long as the Russian army exists, we'll have weapons."

The war in Chechnya has been fought on both sides with Russian weapons - either left behind by Soviet units when Chechnya declared independence in 1991, or purchased since from an impoverished and corrupt Russian military.

Mr Barshigov and villagers in Samashki mentioned a local businessman named Ahmed who they say buys weapons from the Russians in bulk. Ahmed made a big purchase only days before villagers clashed with a Russian armed column. The rebels knocked out one tank. Samashki villagers also said they had arranged for several army deserters to make their way home in return for leaving their weapons behind.

In Achkoi-Martan, Ali said he got involved in arms purchases after an approach from a local Russian civilian who said soldiers wanted to sell some of their weapons. Using a password Ali had given him, the Russian passed through the local Chechen checkpoint and handed over 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

After a second transaction through the Russian middleman, Ali decided to meet the Russian soldiers himself. He procured two boxes of ammunition from a couple of nervous recruits. "They were just frightened boys," he said, "I had some grenades in my jacket. When I unzipped it, they saw the grenades and ran back 20 metres."

The deals, he said, seemed to have been authorised higher up, by captains and majors who were taking a large cut. Missing weapons can easily be written off as lost in battle. "I have to say the Russian army doesn't like its own roubles, they prefer US dollars," Ali added.