Tens of thousands of deaths in war over breakaway republic

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The Independent Online

The bloody war in Chechnya, now well into its fourth year, continues to account for at least a dozen Russian soldiers a week. The number of civilian deaths is unknown, but is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. About 200,000 people, a third of Chechnya's population, are refugees in neighbouring republics.

Yet to listen to President Vladimir Putin tell it, Russia's attempt to crush the secessionist movement in the mainly Muslim breakaway republic is over and almost forgotten.

As recently as Friday night he signed an order setting a date of 5 October for elections for the presidency - the latest measure in Mr Putin's strategy of trying to reintegrate Chechnya into Russia.

But just hours after the Kremlin announcement, Chechen bombers appear once again to have successfully taken their war to the heart of the Russian capital.

The current conflict began in October 1999 after Mr Putin, then Prime Minister, swore to avenge 300 Russians who died in a still unsolved series of city bombings. It is the second post-Soviet war aimed at putting down the secessionist rebellion: the first left an estimated 80,000 civilians dead.

Over the past year, rebel fighters have adopted seldom-seen suicide tactics and directed their attacks as much against pro-Moscow Chechens as against the Russians.

Moscow was first alerted to the threat last October when a theatre was seized by scores of Chechen militants including women strapped with explosives and detonators.

Earlier this year a suicide squad detonated a huge truck bomb inside a government compound in northern Chechnya, killing 59 people, mainly pro-Moscow Chechens working for the local administration and the FSB security service.

Two days later a pair of female bombers struck at a festival organised by the pro-Kremlin Unity Party in a village near Grozny, killing 14.

Russian officials say the Chechen nationalist movement which led the victorious 1994-96 war for independence from Russia, has since been taken over by Muslim extremist groups from abroad, such as al-Qa'ida, which have brought with them ruthless terrorist tactics.

In May a terrorist attack against foreigners in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, killed 34 people. Afterwards Mr Putin was quick to charge that it bore "exactly the same signature" as the truck bombing in Chechnya.

"All terrorist acts committed on Chechen territory are financed by international terrorist organisations, including al-Qa'ida," said Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, head of the FSB's operations in Chechnya.

That message, frequently repeated by the Kremlin since the 11 September attacks on the US, may have helped to mute Western criticism of alleged human rights abuses - including claims that in the Russian forces there is a special group whose task is to kidnap, torture and kill Chechens.