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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 07:02 GMT
Q&A: The Chechen conflict

BBC News Online examines the background to the Chechen conflict.

Q: How long has the Chechen conflict been going on?

A: Chechnya declared independence from Russia in November 1991, but Boris Yeltsin waited until 1994 before sending in the troops to restore Moscow's authority.

That first Chechen war ended in humiliating defeat for the Russian forces in 1996.

On 1 October 1999 Russian Prime Minister (later President) Vladimir Putin went on the offensive again, launching an "anti-terrorist operation" partly triggered by a wave of apartment block bombings in Moscow and other cities, which he blamed on Chechens.

Earlier in the year, Chechen forces had also taken part in an armed attempt to establish an Islamic state in neighbouring Dagestan.

Q: What do the Chechens want?

A: They want independence, or at least self-rule, and they almost got it after 1996.

With Russian military forces out of the country, Chechens elected their own president in January 1997 - Aslan Maskhadov, the former Russian artillery officer who had been the main rebel military commander during the war.

Under the peace deal negotiated with Moscow, a decision on Chechnya's final political status was delayed for five years.

Unfortunately Mr Maskhadov was unable to control in peacetime his more radical field commanders, and the breakaway republic descended into anarchy.

One of the culprits was Arbi Barayev, who helped to turn it into one of the hostage-taking capitals of the world.

Q: What is going on in Chechnya now?

A: Despite Moscow's insistence the "military phase" of the operation is over, Russian casualties continue to mount.

Thousands of troops are stationed in Chechnya to support a puppet civilian administration appointed by the Kremlin.

The rebels keep a low profile as a rule, avoiding pitched battles that would expose them to the Russian army's massive firepower, and relying on lightning guerrilla raids.

The downing of a Russian helicopter in August 2002 resulted in the single largest death toll for the Russian army since the start of World War II.

A group of Chechen rebels under one of the best-known Chechen field commanders, Ruslan Gelayev, crossed into Russia from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge in 2002. They shot down a helicopter and got into a big battle with Russian forces in the republic of Ingushetia, before trying to escape into Chechnya.

After that event, the Georgian and Russian presidents agreed that their countries would carry out joint patrols of the border.

Q: Are there any prospects for peace?

A: From time to time there are reports that the Russian Government is prepared to talk about peace. There have even been contacts between Moscow and the rebel side.

Recently a former speaker of the Russian parliament, Ivan Rybkin, was trying to promote a peaceful settlement.

However, up to now, Moscow's heart has not been in it.

Since 11 September 2001 there has been very little diplomatic pressure on Russia to seek a negotiated solution.

The US, for its part, has apparently accepted the Russian accusation that Mr Maskhadov has links with international terrorism, and says it can no longer recommend him as a negotiating partner.

Q: Do the rebels have links with al-Qaeda?

A: It seems quite likely.

It has been known for years that Muslim volunteers have travelled to Chechnya to join the fight, reportedly after attending training camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

In October 2002 a man suspected of helping to carry out the 11 September attack told a German court that the alleged leader of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, had wanted to fight in Chechnya.

One of the main field commanders, until his death in April at the hands of Russian forces, was an Arab called Khattab - a veteran of the Afghan conflict with the USSR.

He is alleged to have been in occasional telephone contact with Osama Bin Laden.

Intercepted telephone calls also led US officials to allege earlier this year that fighters in the Pankisi Gorge were in contact with al-Qaeda.

The BBC's Peter van Velsen
"The Chechen conflict continues to claim lives"
See also:

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18 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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