Russians tight lipped over Chechnya losses

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The Independent Online

On the night Julia Kalinina watched a Russian military parade through the ruins of Grozny, the Chechen capital, on television to see if she could catch a glimpse of her husband Alexander, he was already dead with a Chechen bullet through his head.

Julia learned of his death the next morning when a colonel and two officers called at her dismal one room apartment in Pskov, a garrison town in north-Russia. "They didn't have to say anything," she says. "As soon as I opened the door and saw them I knew what had happened."

"He was on a scouting mission when he was killed," says Julia, 25. "The Chechens damaged an armoured personnel carrier and he was trying to help the men inside." Later she went to Pskov military airport and found 36 coffins - universally called "cargo 200" in Russia - in one of which was her husband's body.

Despite claims of victory by Russian generals after the fall of Grozny, the fighting in the mountains of southern Chechnya is intensifying. In a single week in February 110 soldiers from Pskov were killed in two battles with Chechen guerrillas.

Julia is confused in her own mind about what she thinks about the Chechen war. "I don't really understand what they are fighting about," she says. She plans to ask Vladimir Putin, the acting Russian president, when she goes to collect Alexander's posthumously awarded Hero of Russia medal.

Few in Pskov, home to the 76th airborne division, feel much sympathy for the Chechens. "Some people here feel that Chechnya should be erased from the map," says Julia, without much enthusiasm.

Rashid Khalikov, a Dagestani journalist on Pskovskaya Pravda, the local paper, remembers that "the feeling after the first Chechen war was that we were betrayed. All the soldiers and most of the civilians here believed we could have defeated the separatists".

Anger in Pskov is directed less at the war itself than at the inefficiency with which it is fought and the slow pace at which casualty figures are released. Local residents say they usually hear rumours from returning soldiers that there have been heavy losses in Chechnya. Official confirmation of the death of a relative depends on the vagaries of the local post.

At Pskovskaya Pravda, which first revealed that 85 paratroopers were killed in a single engagement and not 31 as claimed by the Defence Ministry, Yuri Kustov, a senior editor, says that the army claims that "information on losses cannot be made public because it could be used by the enemy".