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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 November 2005, 07:56 GMT
Chechnya's gun-toting strongman
By Artyom Liss
BBC News, Tsentoroy, Russia

Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's acting Prime Minister
Mr Kadyrov's private army escorts him nearly everywhere
It looks like a scene from a B-movie: a huge black shiny Lexus rushing along narrow village streets.

As the four-wheel-drive speeds through the night, its tyres screech, its body swerving from side to side.

The driver is pushing the car to the limit; the speedometer reads well over 150km/h (93mph).

This is getting from A to B - the Chechen way.

Every now and again, the Lexus brakes sharply, and the driver lowers his window to greet somebody barely visible in the dark.

"Salaam Aleikum!"

"Aleikum Salaam, Ramzan!" comes the answer from a heavily-armed bearded man in American uniform.

Soon [Chechnya] will be the safest place in the world - people will be coming here on holiday
Ramzan Kadyrov

This is Tsentoroy, the home village and headquarters of Ramzan Kadyrov, the most powerful man in today's Chechnya.

He is the republic's acting prime minister - and its de facto ruler.

'Invincible Kadyrovtsy'

Mr Kadyrov is driving us to the barracks of his private army.

Officially it is known as the anti-terrorism squad, but everyone refers to its soldiers as Kadyrovtsy - "Kadyrov's guys".

Armed men in Grozny
Grozny is patrolled by heavily armed men ahead of the poll

Some of them are professional policemen; some were trained as combat officers.

And quite a few - like Ramzan Kadyrov himself - are former rebels who fought the Russians in the mid-1990s, but have since then changed sides.

As the car pulls up outside the army base, Mr Kadyrov whistles into the night. From this moment, his soldiers only have 40 seconds to get ready for action.

Thirty seconds later, they are already standing to attention, lined up and armed to the teeth.

"Look at them," says Mr Kadyrov. "American uniforms, Russian weapons, Islamic beliefs and a Chechen spirit. They are invincible."

Shooting practice

Next morning, he proves that he means business.

Ramzan Kadyrov at a firing range
Mr Kadyrov proudly demonstrated his shooting skills

We are taken to a firing range - where Mr Kadyrov 's soldiers demonstrate their ability to handle pistols, machine guns and grenades.

And their leader, the acting prime minister himself, does not waste any time either.

In front of his troops, Ramzan Kadyrov picks up a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, aims carefully, sticking out his tongue like a schoolchild - and hits the target some 100m away.

This army - and Mr Kadyrov himself - is what the Kremlin is counting on to establish peace and stability in the troubled republic.

They are a living example of Moscow's "Chechenisation" policy - they, not the Russian federal forces, run today's Chechnya.

"We have made Chechnya the safest place in Russia, soon it'll be the safest place in the world - people will be coming here on holiday.

"We've just got a few more devils to kill and that'll be it. We want peace. And if anyone doesn't want to live in peace with us, we'll make them," promises Mr Kadyrov.

Torture claims

But human rights groups are less optimistic.

Ramzan Kadyrov in his house
Chechnya will be Russia's "safest place", Ramzan claims

"Ramzan does not stabilise the situation in Chechnya. He himself motivates supporters of the rebels by his activities," says Grigory Shvedov, a journalist and human rights activist.

"The personal security forces of Ramzan are the main group involved in torturing and abducting people - people are arrested and then no-one can find out where they have been or where their bodies are," he says.

Mr Kadyrov himself categorically denies these accusations, while the Kremlin seems to ignore them.

Back at his home in Tsentoroy, Mr Kadyrov treats us to some tea and biscuits. On the wall opposite is a huge photograph of our host, taken at the Kremlin.

The picture shows him waiting patiently as President Vladimir Putin attaches the Hero of Russia medal to his jacket.

Kadyrov's lion

"Do you want to see my pet lion? The one I received as a present when my baby son was born?" Mr Kadyrov asks us suddenly.

Ramzan Kadyrov's lion cub
The pet lion shows it has a tough character, too

We rush outside, into the enormous front yard. And there, in the corner, hiding behind a white Caucasian sheepdog, sits a lion cub. It looks confused - and rather scared.

But when Mr Kadyrov reaches out to pat it, the cub growls and bares its teeth, making sure the message is clear.

"One day I'll teach it who the master is," he says as he looks at his pet.

"This lion will either kill me - or learn to be obedient."

So, for this budding lion trainer the choice is rather limited.

As it is for the republic he runs.

Mr Kadyrov has already won the upper hand here - now it is a question of whether his lightning-fast, sometimes unpredictable and often tough decisions, will bring the peace and stability which Chechens need so badly.

If not, Chechnya could slip back into chaos, spreading instability around the North Caucasus.

You can hear more about Ramzan Kadyrov from the BBC's Steve Rosenberg in From Our Own Correspondent, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 26 November 2005 at 1130 GMT

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