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A war the West can no longer ignore

Brutality and lies mark Russia's campaign in Chechnya, reports Harold Elletson after a recent visit
Chechnya has been conveniently airbrushed from the atlases of most Western foreign ministers. The brutal war Russia is fighting there has accounted for tens of thousands of military and civilian casualties in the year since it began, and is reaching a new peak of intensity. It has involved the widespread destruction of property and the razing of Grozny, a city the size of Oxford. Russian forces in the republic have resorted to methods that would make the most hardened Bosnian warlord wince. Yet the West still prefers to turn its back.

I recently visited Chechnya and stayed for four days in a village near Grozny. Every night the sound of shelling and machine-gun fire made it clear that the war was far from over.Despite the relatively small area under Russian control, there are more than 200,000 troops in the Chechen Republic at any one time. Contrary to the Russian government's official statements, these are not Interior Ministry troops but are drawn from virtually every unit of the armed forces. The majority of them are conscripts who are poorly motivated, badly trained and terrified. A deserter told me that the first time he knew he was going to Chechnya was when the plane landed in Dagestan. He had been told he was being sent to St Petersburg. In addition to the regular armed forces, units of nayomniki - mercenaries - have been established by the security services. They consist of criminals prepared to serve as a means of earning time off their sentences. They are said to have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the war.

The Chechen rebels, by contrast, are disciplined and highly motivated. Russia maintains that it is patiently negotiating a peace settlement with individual field commanders who operate independently of General Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen leader. All the evidence I saw, however, suggested that the Chechen rebels had a well organised command structure and fully accepted Dudayev's leadership.

The Chechens have an ancient contempt for the Russians and a hatred of the Soviet system, engendered by their mass deportation under Stalin in 1944, which made them leap at the chance of independence when the USSR began to break apart. An old man showed me the weapons his sons used against the Russians: assault rifles, mortars, grenades, an anti-tank rocket and a grenade launcher. "We buy these from the Russians," he said. "They sell us their weapons and we use them to kill them."

Chechen resistance has been stiffened by the brutality of the Russian campaign. Ramzan, a 28-year-old man, was tortured for 40 days after being captured and taken to a "filtration camp". He showed me where his fingernails had been removed so that needles could be inserted into the nerve endings. "They put a metal crown around my skull," he said, "and tightened it every day so that the bone in my head splintered in about 30 different places. The pressure began to force my eyeballs out of their sockets so that eventually I could see my left eye with my right." Such stories are commonplace. So too are the descriptions of Russia's sustained aerial bombardment of villages and other non-military targets in the mountainous countryside beyond Grozny. When Roshni-Chu was attacked in October, dozens of its inhabitants were killed.

It is the use of air power that has led the Chechens, in the recent past, to try to take their war over the border into the Russian Federation. When Shamil Basayev and his guerrillas attacked Budennovsk while President Yeltsin was attending the Halifax summit, the world's media were told that there had been a terrorist attack on a civilian hospital. In fact Basayev, who had lost all 27 of his living relatives in the conflict, had led an attack on the air base at Budennovsk. His men took some casualties and called at the hospital on their way back to Chechnya. The Russian government sent its forces to attack the hospital. In the process several patients were killed.

Now the Chechens vow to attack other targets in Russia. "We won't put a bomb on the Moscow metro or attack civilian targets," one rebel fighter, a former professor, told me. "But we will hit military installations, particularly those connected with continuing the war."

There are many theories about the cause of this brutal war, the most fashionable of which is that it is connected with Russia's legitimate desire to control pipeline routes from oil-rich Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Whatever the reason, the West can no longer afford to ignore it.

Economics alone suggests that the West may be forced to rethink its tacit support. Earlier in the year, a Russian economist estimated that the conflict had already cost the Russian government over pounds 2.5bn - almost as much as the IMF and Western governments have pumped into the Russian economy in the form of credits and soft loans.

Russia had better be careful. By the time its application to join the Council of Europe is considered on 25 January, Chechnya may finally be on the world's agenda. It will no longer be possible, even for the appeasers in the Foreign Office, to turn a blind eye.

The writer is Conservative MP for Blackpool North.