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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Russia's stalemate in Chechnya
Russian troops in Grozny
Russian troops can never relax in Chechnya, even in the capital Grozny
The Russian army's battle against Chechen rebel fighters has been a stalemate for more than a year.

There are tens of thousands of Russian troops in the mountainous republic. But they are seemingly unable to wipe out the rebels and do not appear to be making serious efforts to do so.

The rebels continue sporadic attacks against Russian forces and pro-Russian Chechens, resulting in a steady flow of fatalities.

The troops themselves make occasional raids against suspected rebels.

Violations

In one recent case they captured one of the most notorious rebel leaders, Arbi Barayev, believed to be one of the leading Chechen hostage-takers with the blood of four beheaded Western telecoms engineers on his hands.

Chechen, Zelimkhan Muskhanov, showing injuries
A young villager blames Russian soldiers for his injuries
In another raid, designed to filter out rebels from ordinary villagers, they were accused of beating and torturing hundreds of innocent men - first by international human rights groups, and later by the Russian Government itself.

One of the problems faced by the Russian forces has always been that the distinction between rebels and non-rebels can be blurry - an ordinary villager today may have been a fighter yesterday, and may be again tomorrow.

Already some military leaders are saying, as they began to say during the first Chechen operation of 1994-1996, that it is time to quit.

"We have lost this war and should get out," a general told Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in June.

Rebel offensive

Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin claimed that it was safe to start withdrawing troops and transferred command of the operation in Chechnya from the military to the Federal Security Service (FSB).

In May, however, the withdrawal was halted "until further notice".

Now there are reports that the rebels could be preparing an offensive.

They know that the occasional car bombing or ambush, or the shooting down of a fighter jet or a helicopter, is not going to drive the Russian forces out of Chechnya.

In order to win they need to think big, as they did in 1996, when they seized control of most of the capital, Grozny, surrounding hundreds of Russian troops in isolated checkpoints.

President Putin has suggested that the rebels are now splintered into small groups of up to 10 fighters.

But others, including the President of the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia, General Ruslan Aushev, think the rebels are still capable of pulling off a major military success.

See also:

17 Jul 01 | Europe
Russia wrong-footed on Chechnya
11 Jul 01 | Europe
Russia admits Chechnya abuses
11 Jul 01 | Media reports
Russian media mull Chechnya abuses
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