Bombs and death squads in Russia's 'forgotten' war

Fred Weir
Thursday 19 September 2013 02:40

To hear President Vladimir Putin tell it, Russia's long and bloody conflict in the breakaway republic of Chechnya is over and almost forgotten.

"We have recently approved a whole series of measures for Chechnya," Mr Putin told a press conference at the Kremlin last Friday. "This is very important to have the Chechen people themselves take over the responsibility for law and order in the republic." But even as he spoke, a powerful lorry bomb exploded outside a pro-Moscow Chechen government complex in the republic's capital, Grozny, wounding 38 people.

Now well into its fourth year, the war in the mainly Muslim region continues to kill at least a dozen Russian soldiers a week. Human rights groups allege that Russian security forces have been employing terror tactics in their drive to compel Chechens to accept Moscow's peace terms, including the use of death squads to eliminate even moderate Chechen separatists.

Since the weekend, eight Russian servicemen and three pro-Moscow Chechen policemen have been killed in rebel attacks. A bodyguard of Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who was appointed by the Kremlin, was shot dead in Grozny on Sunday night.

Officially, some 5,000 Russian troops have died in the current war, which began in October 1999 after Mr Putin, who was Prime Minister at the time, swore to avenge 300 Russians who died in an as-yet unsolved series of bombings in Russian cities. But the independent Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, which works closely with the families of drafted youths, puts Russian casualty figures in the current war at 11,000 dead and more than 30,000 wounded.

The number of civilian deaths is unknown, but is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. About 200,000 Chechens, about a third of the republic's population, continue to live as refugees in neighbouring republics.

This is the second post-Soviet war aimed at putting down a secessionist rebellion. The Defence Ministry says 5,500 Russians died in the first war, from 1994 to 1996, but the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers says the number is more like 14,000. Alexander Lebed, a former Russian general who negotiated the treaty ending the first Chechen war, estimated the civilian dead in that conflict at upwards of 80,000. About 15,000 Soviet troops died during the nine-year intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In recent months the Kremlin has implemented a "peace process" aimed at reintegrating Chechnya into Russia and turning over most law-and-order functions - including fighting the rebels - to an 11,000-strong Chechen militia. In March about 80 per cent of Chechens voted in a referendum organised by the Kremlin to adopt a new constitution, which grants the republic limited autonomy but cements it as Russian territory. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who has covered both sides of the Chechnya war, said: "People were promised that if they vote for the new constitution, their relatives who had been seized in security sweeps would be returned to them. But nothing of the kind has happened."

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