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`We will wipe out bandits everywhere'

ENRAGED AND frustrated by Chechen guerrilla raids and terrorist attacks, the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, allowed himself a very unstatesmanlike outburst last Friday. The military would wipe out the "bandits" wherever they found them, he vowed. "If we find them sitting on the toilet, we will wipe them out there as well."

Since then, Mr Putin's popularity rating has soared. For that is exactly how the unthinking Russian man in the street feels. "As soon as those Chechens started whining about independence, we should have nuked them," said Andrei, a small businessman. "We should just drop a nuclear bomb on them and have done."

Caucasians in Russia believe Moscow could have a hidden agenda. While condemning the recent terrorist bombings that have claimed nearly 300 lives, Eldar, an Azeri, said he suspected the Kremlin needed war for political reasons. "If journalists can interview [the Chechen field commander] Shamil Basayev freely, why is it so difficult for the Russian army to catch him?" he asked.

More thoughtful Russians accept that the Caucasians may have a point.

"I was very upset to hear our Prime Minister using such vulgar language," said Yevgenia, a linguist. "If he cannot choose his words better, then it does not inspire hope that he is capable of a sophisticated policy. Brute force is not the answer."