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Thursday, 16 March, 2000, 12:31 GMT
Analysis: Chechen war on the web

Websites have cleared some of the fog of war
By regional analyst Stephen Mulvey

Russian military commanders have made it nearly impossible for foreign reporters to see the war in Chechnya for themselves.

But as the war dragged on, Russian attempts at news management were increasingly being undermined by a Chechen offensive on the internet.

Though it was difficult for foreign journalists to get the rebels' side of the story at first hand, there are frontline reports from the rebel Chechen news agency Kavkaz-Tsentr. These usually give an account which is fundamentally different from the one circulated by Russian officials.


Internet gives first news of militant successes
While the news often appears exaggerated, and may sometimes be false, the site has provided useful tip-offs about incidents left unmentioned, or denied and only later admitted, by official Russian sources.

In October the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, acknowledged that his government had some catching up to do if it was to use the web as effectively as the Chechens.

His statement coincided with the launch of the `Independent Information Centre of the Chechen Republic' an English-language website which carries reports written by pro-Russian journalists.

Russia had earlier established a website projecting the government's point of view on events in Dagestan (www.kavkaz.com) during the battles with Chechen guerrillas there in August and September.

Moscow's official Itar-Tass news agency (www.itar-tass.com) also reports the Russian version of events in Chechnya.

In August Russian hackers made the first of several attacks on Kavkaz-Tsentr, though it was quickly repaired.

Wild claims

Chechen hackers have retaliated with similar tricks. For example, on 24 January they put up a front page on one of the Russian sites which claimed, wildly, that nearly a quarter of Russian soldiers sent to Chechnya had perished, and boasted that Western and Russian media were getting their breaking news from the rebel site.


General Malofeyev's posthumous appearance dented Chechen credibility
Someone is also paying to advertise a pro-Chechen site, Ichkerya Online, on the pro-Russian site. Visitors just have to click on the advertisement to get news seen from the rebel perspective.

The Russian authorities have tried to enlist foreign help to close down rebel sites, and in September Interior Minister Vladimir Rushaylo claimed the FBI had assented.

A few days later one California server said it would no longer handle Kavkaz-Tsentr, but Chechnya's semi-official representative in the US, Albert Digaev, has so far been able to find alternatives.

Chechen Holy War

Another pro-Chechen site that has been quoted in the Western media is called Jihad in Chechnya.

It provides news and answers questions such as, "How do I go and fight in Chechnya?" and is published by the London-based Azzam Publications in Arabic, Bosnian, English, German, Malay and Turkish.

It also shows gruesome pictures of those who have died in the war, apparently with the aim of inspiring Muslim militants to join the fight.

Paradoxically, the pro-Russian `Independent Information Centre of the Chechen Republic' also offers horrifying images, but presumably with the opposite aim, of convincing visitors that a Russian victory is imperative.


Jihad in six languages on the net
There are numerous other websites which provide publicity and moral support for the Chechen cause based in the US, Turkey, and the Baltic states. Some also provide bank details where donations can supposedly be made.

None have equalled the success of the original rebel website, which in September was ranked the 21st most popular site in Russia by one search engine, "Rambler", which later stopped listing it altogether.

The rebel site's credibility suffered a dent after Russia announced on 23 January it had recovered the dead body of missing General, Mikhail Malofeyev. As of 25 January the rebel site was still claiming that the general was held captive.

Meanwhile the Chechen side, with the help of e-mail, has denied Russian claims to have wounded president Aslan Maskhadov.

Chechen spokesmen have long made regular telephone calls to leading news organisations, but their use of e-mail is a new development.

The message to the BBC was in the name of Mr Maskhadov's son, Anzour, and it said his father was alive and well.
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26 Jan 00 | Europe
Russia admits heavy casualties
26 Jan 00 | Media reports
Russian troops' tales of war
23 Jan 00 | Media reports
Russian TV accuses military of censorship
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