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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 5 March, 2003, 20:48 GMT
Russian troops quit Chechnya

By Nikolai Gorshkov
BBC correspondent in Moscow

Russian troops in Chechnya
The pull-out sends an important message to Chechens

Moscow has begun a limited pull-out of federal troops from Chechnya, as part of efforts to improve its image in the war-torn republic ahead of a constitutional referendum there.

In total 1,200 troops are to leave Chechnya, out of the total of about 35,000.

These are surplus troops, the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, told Russian President Vladimir Putin, and their withdrawal would not affect the security situation in Chechnya.

Indeed, whatever troops there are, the critics say, they cannot stop the rebels from carrying out their daring raids.

And there may be more to come to undermine the referendum.

Security sweeps

Nonetheless, there is an important message in this pull-out.

Chechen women walk past destroyed buildings
About 300,000 people have lost their homes in the conflict

According to Russian media, the first to go are the units that were used to block off Chechen villages in the infamous security sweeps, when people were arbitrarily detained and many disappeared without a trace.

The sweeps are believed to be the single biggest factor in creating tensions between the local population and the federal army.

Apparently, to make up for their misbehaviour, the military are promising to hand over their non-combat gear.

Items such as tents, beds, stoves, and even bulldozers will be handed over to the locals.

'Favourable conditions'

Mr Putin went much further, demanding the government compensate all those who lost their homes in the conflict.

Some estimates put their numbers at 300,000 people.

Sceptics doubt that the government would find enough money for the compensation to reflect the prices on the housing market.

Observers say this is all part of an effort by Moscow to create favourable conditions for the referendum on a new constitution for Chechnya, due at the end of March.

And the cynics suggest that the referendum itself is part of President Putin's bid for re-election due in a year's time.


SEE ALSO:
Chechnya gets new PM
10 Feb 03 |  Europe


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