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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March 2005, 12:10 GMT
Top rebel's death fuels Chechen woes
Many people in war-shattered Chechnya fear the violence will continue despite the death of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, the BBC's Sarah Rainsford reports.

In the dusty village of Tolstoy-Yurt, just a short drive from the Chechen capital Grozny, children play football because classes have been cancelled.

Grozny market
Mothers are scared to let their children play outside in Grozny
Their school windows were shattered when Russian troops blew up the house opposite where they say they discovered and killed the rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov.

He was one of Moscow's most wanted men and the villagers of Tolstoy-Yurt are still struggling with the idea he had been hiding in their midst.

"We heard the blast, but we only found out what was going on from the TV!" says Viskhan, who lives on the same street. "The soldiers wouldn't let anyone out onto the streets. I still don't believe it, somehow."

The house Maskhadov was found in has been reduced to a heap of bricks; the rubble strewn with the owner's personal belongings.

For Moscow, his death represents a significant step closer to peace. But Chechnya still feels very much like a war zone.

Russian solution

In Grozny, there are military checkpoints at almost every turn, armed men on every corner.

The pro-Moscow administration is hidden behind multiple rings of reinforced concrete and barbed wire - protection from rebel fighters who consider it a legitimate target.

But inside the fortress, Moscow's much-touted "normalisation" process is in full swing. Participants line up to register for a roundtable to discuss this autumn's elections to parliament.

People have been made cruel here and it's impossible to condemn them

Russia calls this its solution for Chechnya: a political process alongside an anti-terrorist operation. So Chechen President Alu Alkhanov is furious at the West's insistence on peace talks and its portrayal of Maskhadov as a moderate Moscow might have done a deal with.

"I think all talk of negotiations is sacrilege. Maskhadov was a terrorist against his own people. He was the reason for their suffering," Alu Alkhanov fumes.

"Chechnya has chosen its own path to peace, and that will not change."

Bleak outlook

But even in the government canteen, few are convinced the death of the rebel leader brings peace any closer. Some fear too many people are profiting from the conflict financially now.

Others like Malika point-out more radical rebels are still at large.

House where Maskhadov was found
The house where Maskhadov was found has been destroyed
"I feel sorry for Maskhadov, to be honest. I don't think anything will change now he's gone," she says. "He didn't have the power. Nothing much depended on him any more."

Across town at Vainakh State Television, channel editors set up to record an imam preaching on the perils of radical Islam. The show is a regular feature now.

Vainakh toes Moscow's line on the conflict, painting the rebels as religious extremists - part of the international war on terror.

"Chechnya went through 12 years of chaos, and that was a breeding ground for radicalism," insists Beslan Khaladov, the channel's general director.

"Now it's important to teach true Islam to counter the influence and the money coming from overseas to fuel extremism here."

That argument is easier to make now Maskhadov has gone. He was elected president of a separatist Chechnya and whilst alive remained a powerful symbol of the first Chechen war for independence.

Lost children

But Shamil Basayev is in command now, the warlord who claimed personal responsibility for the Beslan school siege. So what is he fighting for?

"Officially he is still fighting for Chechen independence, this is his slogan," explains Caucasus expert Alexei Malashenko.

"But unofficially I think even he does not believe that is possible. I think we may compare his fight with the Basque resistance in Spain. Who believes in the collapse of Spain? Nobody. But the attacks continue."

But unlike in Spain, families in Chechnya live with the fear of violence every day.

Asiya and her young family live among the ruins of their bombed-out apartment block like thousands of others. Last year, two of her daughters were seriously injured by a grenade, so Asiya is afraid now even to let them play outside.

At her kitchen table looking out over the shattered Grozny cityscape, Asiya says years of war have created a cycle of violence in Chechnya. She talks sadly of blood feuds and hatred.

"People always talk about Beslan, and that was awful. But why does no one ever remember how many Chechen children have been killed?" Asiya wonders.

"It's not just terrorists fighting here, there are Chechen people whose whole families have been destroyed. People who have nothing left to lose. People have been made cruel here and it's impossible to condemn them."

Like many in Chechnya, Asiya fears this conflict will roll on. She believes more terrorist attacks are inevitable. The Kremlin's policy appears to promise little success. But without Aslan Maskhadov it is far harder now to argue for any alternative.

See where the rebel leader had been hiding

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