Veteran rebel gives Russia a Caucasian nightmare

RUSSIA'S NIGHTMARE of another war in the north Caucasus is unfolding anew, spirited into life by a hated ghost from the past - the Islamic radical, hijacker, mass hostage-taker and feted Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev.

Once again, the scarred, heavily-bearded features of Russia's chief tormentor are dominating the airwaves as Moscow dispatches fresh troops and weapons to try to blast him and his Islamic fighters out the mountains of Dagestan.

Basayev, 33, and a Jordanian Islamic militant called Khattab have emerged as the leaders of a force of Wahhabi guerrillas who have seized control of at least seven villages in the southern Russian republic, producing the most dangerous flare-up in the Caucasus tinderbox since the end of the Chechen war.

Yesterday Russia's new prime-minister designate, Vladimir Putin, raised the stakes sharply by threatening to bomb guerrilla bases within neighbouring Chechnya, a move that would risk widening the conflict. "Chechnya is a Russian territory and wherever the fighters are, strikes will be carried out against them," Mr Putin declared."

A week of air strikes by Russian jets and helicopters have been accompanied by a gust of threats, counter-threats, posturing and mendacious statistics from both sides. The Russians claim to have killed 200 guerrillas; Basayev's forces admit to only five losses. He also says his army has been so swamped with volunteers that it has changed its name - absurdly - to the Islamic Peacekeeping Army.

The events bears a depressingly similarity to those of of the Chechen war. Once again refugees - some 6,000, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - are fleeing their homes. Once again Basayev has ranted about his ambition of driving the Russian "infidels" from the Caucasus, leaving him and his fighters to establish an independent Islamic state.

And once again Russia is talking about a "massive action" to oust a small group of guerrillas. Yesterday, Mr Putin said that a major operation had already begun against the rebels, who are in Dagestan's Botlikh district close to Chechnya. Like the Chechen army during the war, the guerrillas have the crucial advantage of being highly mobile, well trained, and familiar with the terrain. But Russia is caught between a rock and a hard place. With parliamentary elections looming in December, and the presidential poll next year, it will want to be seen to be cracking down on Islamic militancy. Fears also abound in Moscow that Basayev's army - which Russia estimates at 1,200 - will sufficiently destabilise Dagestan to cause the fall of the republic's Moscow-backed government. The presence of some 30 different nationalities in the republic, many in conflict with one another, could easily trigger a localised civil war, causing another part of the Russian federation to slip beyond Moscow's control.

In another painful echo of the past, Mr Putin has pledged to defeat the guerrillas within a fortnight - a claim as wildly unrealistic as those made at the start of the Chechen war in 1994. Russia's former defence minister, Pavel Grachev,predicted the conflict would be over in a few days; it lasted 21 months, and claimed tens of thousands of lives.

For once, Boris Yeltsin appears to more realistic than those around him. He has said the issue will be resolved "gradually, with no hurry." For all the flourishing and rhetoric in Moscow, Mr Yeltsin and his inner circle must surely know that this is a conflict that Russia can, at best, hope to contain as a small fire on the border.

The involvement of the flamboyant and uncompromising Basayev has done much to raise the stand-off above the level of the countless skirmishes that regularly occur in the border zone.

He rose to notoriety in November 1991, after the Russians had declared a state of emergency in Chechnya, when he hijacked an aeroplane in southern Russia, forced it to land in Turkey, and negotiated safe passage home. He went on to become one of the Chechen republic's main war commanders. In 1996, he ran for the Chechen presidency, but lost. After a brief stint as prime minister, Basayev returned to his fighter's uniform, this time espousing the causes of Islam and independence for the whole north Caucasus as never before. His pursuit of that goal is now under way.