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Tuesday, 16 January, 2001, 17:01 GMT
Chechnya's cycle of devastation
Chechen refugees
The visiting delegation has found a grim situation
By Tom de Waal

A European parliamentary delegation is visiting the war-ravaged Russian region of Chechnya to assess whether the human rights situation there has improved.

They have found a grim situation.

Kenny Gluck
Kenny Gluck's kidnap caused aid workers to pull out of Chechnya
The war is still continuing, tens of thousands of refugees are living in appalling conditions and foreign aid-workers have pulled out of Chechnya itself.

They withdrew last week after the kidnap of an American, Kenneth Gluck, who was working for the medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres.

Mr Gluck was seized in the lowland village of Stariye Atagi, far from the mountains where most of the conflict is going on.

Mr Gluck's capture shows that the kidnap gangs who plagued Chechnya after the end of the first war with Moscow in 1996 are still able to operate, despite the presence of thousands of Russian troops.

History repeating

As in the first conflict of 1994-6, a pattern is repeating itself.

The Russians - relying on the devastating power of their artillery and aviation - conquered most of the territory of the republic, but then got bogged down in a partisan war with the more mobile Chechen guerrillas in the hills.

When the latest Chechen campaign began in 1999, Russian officials promised that what they called an "anti-terrorist operation" would be completed in a few months.

In his New Year address two weeks ago President Vladimir Putin again pledged that he would "bring the operation to an end".

But there is no sign of the conflict ending soon.

Mountain warriors

According to Western aid workers and independent reports, about 30 Russian soldiers a week are still dying in ambushes and shoot-outs with Chechen fighters.

Russian troops in Chechnya
Russia's artillery and aviation are formidable, but the rebels beat them in the hilss
The overall Russian casualty rate since autumn 1999 has now exceeded 3,000.

The two men Russia blamed for a series of explosions that killed hundreds of civilians - the Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev and the Saudi-born warrior known as Khattab - are still at large in the mountains.

When spring arrives and the snows thaw in the high mountains, the rebels will be able to move more freely south across the Caucasus mountain range.

This is the major worry of Western governments, who are afraid that the conflict will spill over into Georgia, which is a strategic ally of the United States and the European Union.

In recent months there have been many reports of Chechen guerrillas coming down into the valleys of Georgia.

Two Spanish businessmen were kidnapped there, possibly by Chechens.

The Russians have asked the Georgians for permission to monitor the Chechen-Georgian border, but the Georgians have refused.

That is the major reason Russia gave in December for introducing visas for Georgians to travel to Russia.

Negotiations

With no obvious end in sight to the suffering, some Russian politicians have again been proposing a negotiated solution with the rebels.

The liberal Russian member of parliament Boris Nemtsov went down to the North Caucasus in December and met representatives of the rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov.

Chechen refugee camp
Thousands of refugees continue to live in appaling conditions
Mr Putin said that he was not against these contacts, but repeated his view that all armed rebels should surrender.

Another view has come from the prominent Chechen politician and former speaker of the Russian parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Mr Khasbulatov is a strong opponent of Chechen independence and critic of the rebels.

But in an article in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta published on 29 December, he was savagely critical of the central government's policies in Chechnya.

Mr Khasbulatov said that Chechnya "no longer exists," after being destroyed by wanton destruction, looting and disease.

He said the behaviour of the Russian military had alienated the civilian population and called for new peace talks.

Tom de Waal is the author with Carlotta Gall of "Chechnya: A short victorious war"

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See also:

15 Jan 01 | Europe
Chechen refugees 'lack food'
12 Jan 01 | Europe
Russian hostage found in Chechnya
10 Jul 00 | Europe
EU unfreezes Russian aid
08 Dec 98 | Europe
Chechnya kidnap victims dead
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